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December 14, 2018 Friday 01:59:41 PM IST

Want giant leaps? Take baby steps

Creative Living

There is an insightful story of a pastor, who wanted to change the position of the piano in the church in order to improve its acoustics. One fine Sunday, the people discovered that the position of the piano has been changed from left side in the balcony of the church to the middle. The parish council was called out to discuss the matter and the pastor was sharply criticized and was forced to resign. A new pastor replaced him. After almost a year, the former pastor was visiting the church. To his great surprise, he found that the piano in the middle of the balcony! On enquiry, the new pastor explained to him the logic of baby steps. He said, “I managed to make a shift to the piano by a few centimeters every week. It actually took five months for the feat.” A quantum change, when executed in baby steps, will happen!


Creative minds often are under the illusion that the world understands them and push the creative changes, often marred by formidable opposition and failed execution. They forget the inertia towards the change existing in the mass. They forget to gather a critical mass of supporters to initiate a sustainable chain action of change. Wherever plurality of actors is involved in the decision-making as in a democratic set-up, and whenever the facts of the matter are not tangible, the logic of baby steps assumes importance. Taking giant leaps in such situations may lead to chaos, inviting panic reaction from the stakeholders. In such situations, an evolutionary approach to creativity is called for, a kind of kaizen or continuous improvement as suggested by the Japanese business managers. In the world of public policy, it is often described as disjointed incrementalism or gradualism.


Lindblom’s Incrementalism

Charles Edward Lindblom, Professor of Political Science and Economics at Yale University, USA, was the early proponent of incrementalism in policy/decision-making. Carefully analyzing the evolution of welfare policies and trade unions in the industrialized world, Lindblom identified the traces of disjoint or random increments in the policy development, instead of giant policy upheavals. Such ‘baby steps’ led to sustainable policy changes in those countries. His results were published in the journal, Public Administration Review. Those two papers, namely, ‘The science of 'Muddling Through’’ (1959) and ‘Still muddling, not yet through’ (1979), describe the basic concept of disjointed incrementalism. He dared to subscribe to such ‘muddling through’ in baby steps with a scientific character, as it found evidenced in large number of policy change scenarios.


Advantages of incrementalism

A strategic planning for policy or decision-making is a time-consuming affair. It is difficult to develop an overview of things especially when necessary information is not available. And, one is left with the option of incrementalism, responding to the immediate needs in small steps. If one has the final goal in sight, it would serve the decision-making process better. Some proven advantages of incrementalism are listed here:

·        Pragmatism: The political acceptance for incremental change is much overwhelming than that towards a radical change;

·        Simplicity: Since no pre-determined programme is involved in an incremental change, it remains simple and easily understood by the stakeholders;

·        Continuity: An incremental change keeps the line with existing policies, reassuring the stakeholders;

·        Flexibility: Baby steps are typically disjointed or random and hence extremely flexible and it does not contribute to the creation of policy straight-jackets;

·        Peaceful: Adaptation being a natural instinct, incremental changes could be implemented in a peaceful manner.


Exploitation of Incrementalism: The metaphor of the boiling frog

One shall not lose sight of the misuse of Incrementalism at the hands of despots, tyrants and fascists. They cleverly used it to gradually inject the venom of hatred, chauvinism or fundamentalism into the minds of people in preparation for the eventual implementation of their evil designs. Even democratic rulers often resort to incrementalism either to hide the true color of their policies or to systematically dampen any protest against them. For example, the incremental rise in the price of petroleum products has sullied protests against it. Similarly, various subsidies removed in a graduated manner is found to dissuade or subdue democratic responses against it.


Incrementalism can also lead to unhealthy consequences, if it is meant for artificial adaptation of a given fatal situation. People become unmindful of the scenario, when rates of change are minimal. This happens in the case of ‘climate change’ according to Daniel Quinn, the famous environmentalist author. He cites the timeless metaphor of boiling frog in his book ‘The Story of B’ to substantiate the point. “If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will, of course, frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death.” Policy paralysis to counter climate change is a case of ‘boiling frog’, according to Quinn.


Artificial adaptation induced by incrementalism can turn harmful at personal levels too. For example, we hear about victims of abusive relationships or people in hostage, who gradually adapts to the vicious situation, without ever attempting to escape. This is also true about the unhealthy habits gradually scripted into the lives of the people.


Disadvantages of Incrementalism

·        Beagle fallacy: A beagle hound has exceptional sense of smell but limited eyesight. Hence, it may happen that they lose sight of a prey that is right in front but downwind. Similarly, an institution that follow the incrementalism in policy/decision-making run the risk of missing targets.

·        Weaker response: Incremental response is often inadequate to meet the lasting requirements of the institution.

·        Less motivating: A radical change is often more attractive than an incremental change. Hence the stakeholders may not always be motivated.

·        Incurrence of waste: An incremental system cannot be as efficient as a well-planned system. Hence it is doomed to produce inevitable wastage of resources.

·        Risk of small thinking: A conservative and timid response could characterize a small thinking, which fails to fit into the big picture of things.


Testimonials of success

In spite of all pitfalls and disadvantages of incrementalism, it is successfully employed in many spheres of human activity, including, politics, engineering, software design and industry. An oft cited example is the supremacy of Denmark in wind energy technologies. Denmark developed its wind technology in an incremental way, building upon the existing windmills used in its agricultural sector.  The other parts of the world, including USA or Germany, wind energy technologies were considered high-tech innovations requiring major technology upheaval. Eventually, Denmark has proven itself as the true winner of this technology race.


In the political arena, the response of Germany towards globalization is often characterized as incrementalism. The politics of small steps followed by its Chancellor Angela Merkel, is said to have won for Germany an edge in the globalized world.


Since the speed of change is the size of the incremental steps multiplied by the frequency of steps, incremental change could prove to be one of the fast and sure method of bringing about creative changes in a system.

Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran

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