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Praise for the Incrementalist By Alec Hill

An Incementalist Resists the Temptation of Quick Fixes

Labeling a leader an “incrementalist” is generally not a compliment. It connotes a lack of vision, tentativeness, and ineffectiveness in common parlance.

Instead, American culture lauds those who advocate “big bang solutions” and “transformational change.” Who doesn’t want to be seen as a world-changing buccaneer who breaks with the past and launches boldly into the future?  

Hence I was surprised by a new book entitled “Gradual: The Case for Incremental Change in a Radical World” published by Oxford University Press. For you see, I am – and always have been – a clandestine incrementalist. 

Co-authors Greg Berman and Aubrey Fox explain why gradual change is preferable to seismic moves. While acknowledging that the latter is sometimes necessary – such as in a fiscal or leadership crisis – incrementalism should be our default mode. Why?

Sustained Incremental Change Has Powerful and Lasting Impact

Many regard gradualism and vision-casting as opposites. But such need not be the case. In my experience, patient visionaries who see the long game and lay out a step-by-step strategy to get there constitute the best leaders.

The apostle Paul possessed this combination. He had a huge vision in his desire to bring the gospel to the Roman empire. A big-picture leader, he moved incrementally. But in his implementation, he patiently planted churches in the empire’s eastern half for a dozen years before turning west (Romans 15).   

Berman and Fox use phrases such as “heroic incrementalism” and “realistic radicalism” to describe strategic builders who move the ball down the field five yards at a time. The cumulative result, they argue, is often “something truly transformative.”

This reminds me of author Jim Collins’ “flywheel effect.” Collins sees no “miracle moment” but a dogged effort to produce enduring change. Long-lasting change, he argues, rarely happens all at once but somewhat resembles pushing a giant flywheel  – one turn at a time – progressively building momentum.  

Incremental Change Evokes Leadership Virtues

Per Berman and Fox, “gradualists know how little they know.” In other words, they are humble. They do not presume to be omniscient about the future, echoing the apostle James who rebukes those who “boast in your arrogant schemes (James 2).”

At their best, incrementalists are strong collaborators. Committed to continuous improvement – think of Japanese automakers – they make adjustments based on the recommendations of colleagues. And, by building a broad base of support, their decisions are less likely to be later reversed by subsequent leaders.

Mature incrementalists are also persistent and self-disciplined. Did you know Thomas Edison conducted over 1,000 experiments before perfecting the lightbulb? Paul uses the image of an athlete to make the same point: “I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body (1 Cor. 9).” Athletes understand the necessity of the daily grind required to achieve long-term goals. 

Radical Change Often Leads to Disaster

Leon Trotsky once sneered that gradualism was “boring.” He then joined Vladimir Lenin in plunging Russia into revolutionary destruction and chaos.

We’ve all witnessed leaders who make great promises but fail to deliver. Sometimes they bet the farm and severely damage the ministry we love. They are not generally bad people, just misguided. They promise quick fixes, and we are too apt to take the bait.

Lasting and healthy change takes time. There are no shortcuts. When we succumb to the lure of promises that seem too good to be true, we risk becoming detached from reality. Instead, Scripture calls us to emulate the builder who plans carefully before committing funds (Luke 14) and the ant who patiently stores its food for the winter ahead (Proverbs 6).  

I realize that praising incrementalism flies in the face of strong cultural headwinds. But while gradualism may not be sexy, humility, collaboration, and persistence generally pay off. We should take time and do things right instead of listening to shouts for urgent action.

Paraphrasing Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, erecting sand castles may be flashy in the short term, but building on rock is incomparably better.

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Alec Hill is President Emeritus of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA and author of Just Business: Christian Ethics in the Marketplace.


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