Radical Change versus Incremental Change

by Mark on March 17, 2010

There are two basic types of change that are polar opposites: radical change and
incremental change. There has been a surprising amount of debate over which kind of change is better. Some people, such as consultant Gary Hamel, promote the idea of innovation, or radical change. Others, such as the proponents of kaizen, believe that smaller, gradual improvements are better.

People who believe in innovation often think that incremental change is too slow. Those that believe in incremental change often believe that radical change is too risky and isn’t sustainable. So who is right? Which is the better form of change? I would argue that it is a stupid question. It’s like asking, “Which is better – hot or cold?” It’s nonsensical. It’s not specific enough. Better for what?

The situation determines the type of change to use.

If we want to make rapid changes, then obviously radical change is the way to go. However, if we want to make sustainable changes, then incremental change is preferable.

Let’s say you want to lose weight, so you decide to go on a diet. Diets are often successful in terms of allowing us to lose weight rapidly, but they are not sustainable. They aren’t even intended to be sustainable. We start diets with the thought that they will be temporary. To keep the weight off, we need to gradually condition a new sustainable nutritional plan, or we are going to end up back where we started. Conditioning is a form of incremental improvement. Our brains and bodies slowly adapt. This is where most people fail in their goal to keep weight off. They don’t formulate a plan to form new habits that allow them to keep the weight off.

Another example is clutter. If you have a house full of clutter (guilty as charged!), then you can make some rapid changes and clear out the clutter. However, if you don’t condition new habits to keep your space uncluttered, then the clutter will return. In an interesting dichotomy, my work office typically has almost no clutter at all, even though my home is very cluttered. The difference is that my work habits support an uncluttered space, whereas my habits at home do not. That is something that I will need to address in order to achieve my vision of going minimalist.

What if we can have the best of both worlds?

What if we can combine the speed of radical change with the sustainability and continual improvement of incremental change? We can do this by consciously incorporating both types of change into our lives. Radical change requires willpower, and as I’ve said before, willpower always runs out. This doesn’t have to be a problem though, as long as we understand this fact and plan for it. The solution is to focus on incremental change with quick bursts of radical change.

Yesterday, I announced The 90-Day Challenge. One of my core strategies during this challenge will be to incorporate incremental change with quick bursts of radical change. We will soon see what kind of results I get.

Are you up for the challenge?

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