When I get inspired I can work for hours without even getting up from my chair. I’ve had many all nighters, not because I’m working against a deadline, but because I’m “in the zone.” I’m on a roll. Nothing can stop the flow of creativity and productivity. It’s great. This can go on for days or weeks if I’m really excited about something.
However, just like a sugar rush, I eventually crash. That crash means I’m not productive for the week following because I’m so tired and burnt out. Turns out, it’s hard to sustain a high level of output solely based on enthusiasm.
The Tortoise and the Hare
Aesop had this figured out over 2,500 years ago when he wrote “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Like most fables, the story illustrates many things about human nature, but one that is most apparent can be summed up by the phrase, “slow and steady wins the race.”
In our lives of personal and business endeavors, what does that mean? To me it means that incrementalism will win over manic nights of inspiration, every time. Consistent and steady effort will bring long-term results that are more predictable. It also means a better night’s sleep!
Charles E. Lindblom coined the term “Incrementalism” in the mid 1950s and published a book about it in 1959 called “The Science of Muddling Through.” In the book he outlines the benefits and methodologies for making small, well-thought out policy changes, rather than huge, momentous changes. He argues that it’s more effective to deal with immediate issues than working on a long-term strategic plan.
In sports parlance, it’s better to consistently hit singles and doubles than to swing for the fences every single time. Any sports fan knows that doing that is a great way to have a very low batting average since you strike out nearly every time.
why Continuous improvement is better
Consistently building something gradually is always better than trying to do it all at once for several reasons. First, it’s easier and faster to implement a plan because it’s simpler to plan, describe and get buy-in for small steps. In the article, The Tyranny of Small Decisions, I used the example of the U.S. highway system. The system was built over decades and is made up of a lot of small decisions over time.
Before the system was built, if someone were to propose building a highway system that would cost $128.9 billion1, it would likely have never been approved. It was built because it started as a much smaller project and was built out over time.
Second, a small plan can be flexible since the tasks can be changed daily or in short cycles. Changing a large plan usually requires the buy-in of many people, which can mean delays and possible conflicts. Short iterations are much easier also because course corrections can happen without much effort.
Third, it’s easier to budget for since the work can be scaled up or down to fit the budget, rather than trying to budget for a large, long-term project.
The lean startup method
For these and many other reasons, entrepreneurs favor the Lean Startup method when starting a business or developing a project. Lean Startup calls for taking incremental steps, getting feedback and adjusting as you go. Making continual and consistent improvements and development. I go into that in more detail in this video.
The downside of this method is that there’s sometimes no overall plan, but there can be. Incrementalism doesn’t mean you’re flying by the seat of your pants, doing whatever you want every day. If you’re working by continual improvement, take time to step back and outline the plan and the goal and then dive in and divide it up into smaller parts that can be done in small segments.
It’s vital to have a strategy and a vision to know where you’re going. Entrepreneur and professor, Spencer Taggart, created a video series with us about how to do that. Check out the videos here to get clarity and direction on creating an effective long-term plan for anything.
Bry Cox and I discuss more on incrementalism in the video below. What have you found is most effective for you? Share in the comments section below.
Video timestamp and summary:
0:45 – Elementary school prepares you for Jr. High. Everything is step by step, over time.
1:35 – Investing is the same way. Small, consistent amounts over time add up.
2:15 – The media distorts our perceptions with seemingly overnight successes
3:25 – Flashiness is at the end of all the work
3:30 – The stock market is an example of a long-term trend which is made up of ups and downs
4:15 – Keeping records will help you see the trends and not focus on the ups and downs, so you can see you’re making progress.
4:45 – Having a roadmap will help you track the incremental steps that lead to long-term success.