Incremental Change and Radical Innovation – both a journey and a destination

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: March 1st 2012

We’ve all heard the terms: a grand slam, Hail Mary, hole in one – whatever the sport at the time, it refers to a final heroic play that despite heavy odds, wins the game. Sometimes, when we talk of change in our own organizations, we’re looking for “one big win” as opposed to considering the gains that could be had by small incremental change that is ongoing and purposeful. I was reminded of this ongoing debate between incremental vs radical change in a conversation we had with a very successful businessman. His reflections on change and process were insightful.

The businessman we met was obviously very comfortable in his life status, what he had done in his career, and clearly understood his values, direction, and what he felt it took to “succeed.” It was fun to listen to someone who had been successful for over 40 years as a developer in a huge array of projects. It was quite an interesting and frank conversation. One question posed to him was about what we might call “the big win,” a chance to have a very significant and large scale project unfold in a way that would change the landscape about how we did business in the future. As he reflected on our question, I was somewhat surprised at his answer which wasn’t to go for the one big win, it was really just to do one thing, do it well, and do it soon. This, in turn would pave the way for larger endeavors. His answer had me reflect on how we view change in education and, given the context, which approach to change is right in differing situations.

He stated very clearly that, in his opinion, that the way to go about changing a culture was to simply pick something and “do it.” While not discounting the promise of what a large initiative could achieve, his message was that small gains build momentum. They build confidence in your staff, in those around you and they help align your work toward success one step at a time. As more and more of these small incremental successes line up, pretty soon you have a great number of people and initiatives all marching in the same direction.

I also began reflecting on an earlier post I had done quite a while ago about schools being organisms not mechanisms. If I do indeed believe that (and I do), then it had me think that organisms change in small and incremental ways but, over time, those changes can be (r)evolutionary.

The power behind incremental change is that with a few aligned and clear successes, the momentum that builds can become overwhelming in pursuit of a larger vision. Years ago, I played a lot of computer chess. Chess computers make calculations based on a huge range of factors but, as you play, pretty soon what are small space, time and positional advantages, quickly add up to pieces and a checkmate. Once on a roll, the end is inevitable. A victory doesn’t come as a whirlwind checkmate out of the blue, it comes by just a slow, steady overwhelming advantage that is built up one move at a time.

Our visitor gave such a simple message. Pick something and do it. He also stated that the advantage of incremental change was that if your initiative wasn’t perfect, you can adjust next time. However, if you choose one large scale win, the consequences of missing the mark are indeed much higher.

The Japanese have a philosophy of business and improvement that is called Kaizen. Rooted in assembly, productivity and manufacturing, it doesn’t really apply perfectly to education but the essence behind Kaisen is a dissatisfaction with the status quo no matter how good it is. No matter where you are as a school or as an individual, we would all (I assume) hope that we are a little better next year. We should be constantly of the belief that we truly can improve no matter where we stand.

Of course, change whether incremental or radical requires a vision of the future. If you know where you want to go, you have a better chance of getting there. There is a big difference between the journey and the destination and incremental change is about the journey while radical innovation is really about the intended destination.

A final note is that the scope of any change is actually quite a relative term. Practices in our schools vary widely. With any given change, there likely are people at many points along the incremental/radical paradigm and for some, the change will be minimal and easily accommodated and for others, it may represent a radical new way of doing their daily work. The BC Education Plan, for many teachers, is a natural extension of the work they are doing, for others, it may represent a very significant shift in practice.

Regardless of the view of radical vs incremental change, you change a system one interaction at a time. So as you consider the next change in your building, consider the scope of change, what it represents to those who work within and get prepared to work together at what likely is a challenge for many regardless of where they stand. Unlike the Hail Mary pass however, good supportive systemic change can be planned, communicated, and telegraphed for success. It isn’t just a toss in the air and hope someone catches it in the end. Strong leadership in a school will help ensure that major changes aren’t left to chance.