“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,...Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.”― C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
At the most foundational level, the role of leaders is to solve organizational problems and to prevent new ones. Especially big problems, the kind that might keep the company from thriving, imperil its future, harm the employees, threaten the mission, and/or degrade its growth and potential. These are all examples of large problems; fundamental problems, the very kind that effective leaders absolutely must solve and prevent. Fundamental problems require fundamental solutions; large solutions commensurate with the size and nature of the challenge, decisive action, enduring commitment, and laser-like leader and organizational focus until they are solved or prevented.
But the temptation to incremental problem solving is enormous. Incrementalism requires less change, is more "comfortable", preserves flexibility for the future in an uncertain environment, requires no admission of error and provides the appearance of prudence. I see it all the time in organizations large and small. Decisions about the future are deferred until the future, when it's now the present and the circumstances have inevitably gotten worse, not better, and the way ahead is even more muddled than before, with a solution substantially more painful to implement. Additional damage has occurred in the intervening time, opportunities have been lost, and resources squandered that would otherwise have been applied to an enduring fix. It's a terrible abrogation of leadership in most situations and has enormous consequences for companies and employees.
The root causes of incrementalism mostly lie in the personalities of the leaders, in my experience. Leaders who value personal comity and the easy (for them) dynamic of a comfortable status quo over the necessary and challenging needs of greater organizational good are usually skilled practitioners of the incremental arts. The results can be devastating.
As Lawrence Summers, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary said: "Yet the American experience in Vietnam should be cautionary to those inclined to yield to the temptation of incrementalism. At every step, policymakers did enough to avoid disaster but not enough to offer a prospect of success — until the moment when helicopters left the Saigon embassy and U.S. policy ended in failure."
Leaders have to play to win, not play to "not lose". There is a difference. Clear-eyed, bold action is what leaders must provide for their organizations. I hope that against much of the experience of recent years that it will be forthcoming.
“Incrementalism guarantees only one thing which is mediocrity”
― Faisal Khosa
Keith Stalder, #53
Copyright © 2015 Keith Stalder & Associates, LLC. All rights reserved.
Keith Stalder has over 40 years of leadership experience in organizations from the very large and established to small technology start ups and everything in between. With a broad and deep appreciation for, and understanding of, the fundamental challenges of organizations and businesses, both in government and the private sectors, his passion is to help all organizations become all that they aspire to. He is the founder of Keith Stalder and Associates, LLC, a company dedicated to advancing organizational visions and fundamentally transforming how businesses everywhere are run. Visit www.ksaintegration.com for more information.