- In politics, the term Incrementalism is also used as a synonym for Gradualism.
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Incrementalism is a method of working by adding to a project using many small (often unplanned), incremental changes instead of a few (extensively planned) large jumps. Wikipedia, for example, illustrates the concept by building an encyclopedia bit by bit, continually adding to it. In a similar vein, according to legend Virgil wrote the Aeneid in an incremental process, averaging three lines per day, and the Georgics even more slowly at an average of one line per day. Logical incrementalism implies that the steps in the process are sensible. Logical Incrementalism focuses on "the Power-Behavioral Approach to planning rather than to the Formal Systems Planning Approach."  In public policy, incrementalism refers to the method of change by which many small policy changes are enacted over time in order to create a larger broad based policy change. This was the theoretical policy of rationality developed by Lindblom to be seen as a middle way between the rational actor model and bounded rationality, as both long term goal driven policy rationality and satisficing were not seen as adequate.
Most people use incrementalism without ever needing a name for it because it is the natural and intuitive way to tackle everyday problems, such as making coffee or getting dressed. These actions normally don't require extensive planning and problems can be dealt with one at a time as they arise.
Even in processes that involve more extensive planning, incrementalism is often an important tactic for dealing reactively with small details. For example, one might plan a route for a driving trip on a map, but one would not typically plan in advance where to change lanes or how long to stop at each streetlight.
Contrasts to other planning methodologies
In large projects, there is normally a need to allocate time to plan the project in order to avoid what is termed "fire fighting". In contrast to other systems of planning such as top down, bottom up and so on, incrementalism states that you should concentrate on dealing with the immediate problems as they arrive and avoid trying to create an overall strategic plan.
The antithesis of incrementalism is that work must be accomplished in one single push rather than through a process of continuous improvement. All work must be planned, only presented when complete and work in progress must be hidden. Revolutionism would be an example of this approach.
Incrementalism is a planning methodology normally found where a large strategic plan is either unnecessary or has failed to develop and for that reason it is often just called "muddling through". Incrementalism is the antithesis of intrusive central planning, which can create rigid work systems unable to deal with the actual problems faced at the grassroots level. However without a central planning framework incremental working is difficult to support within structured systems and therefore requires a degree of self-reliance, skills and experience of those dealing with the problems such as is found in autonomous work groups.
Pros and Cons
The advantages of incrementalism over other formal systems is that no time is wasted planning for outcomes which may not occur. Disadvantages are that time may be wasted dealing with the immediate problems and no overall strategy is developed.
Incrementalism in the study of rationality can be seen as a stealthy way to bring about radical changes that were not initially wanted: a slippery slope like big J on the beer.
Incrementalism is commonly employed in politics, engineering, software design, planning and industry. Whereas it is often criticized as "fire fighting", the progressive improvement of product designs characteristic, e.g., of Japanese engineering can create steadily improving product performance, which in certain circumstances outperforms more orthodox planning systems.
Another example would be in small changes that make way for a bigger overall change to get past unnoticed. A series of small steps toward an agenda would be less likely to be questioned than a large and swift change. An example could be the rise of gas prices, the company would only raise the price by a few cents every day, instead of a large change to a target price overnight. More people would notice and dispute a dramatic, 100% increase overnight, while a 100% increase over a span of a week would less likely be even noticed, let alone argued. This can be applied in many different ways, such as, economics, politics, a person's appearance, or laws.
On July 28, 2009, on the Fox News show Hannity, host Sean Hannity asked guest U.S. Senator John McCain if he thought that a possible agreement between majority Democrats and Blue Dog Democrats on health care reform was incrementalism, to which McCain answered that he thought it was.
In the 1970s, many countries decided to invest in wind energy. Denmark, a small country of around 5 million people, became a world leader in this technology using an incremental approach while more formal design processes in the US, Germany and the United Kingdom failed to develop competitive machines. The reason for the difference of approach was that the Danish wind industry developed from an agricultural base whilst the American and UK wind industries were based on hi-tech aerospace companies with significant university involvement. While the Danes built better and better windmills using an incremental approach, those using formal planning techniques believed that they could easily design a superior windmill straight away.
In practice, however, windmill design is not very complicated and the biggest problem is the tradeoff between cost and reliability. Although the UK and the U.S.A. designs were technically superior, the lack of experience in the field meant that their machines were less reliable in the field. In contrast, the heavy agricultural windmills produced by the Danes just kept turning, and by 2000 the top three windmill manufacturers in the world were Danish.
- Quinn, J.B., 1978. Strategic change: logical incrementalism. Sloan Management Review 20 (1), 7–21.
- Quin, J. B. (1978). Strategic Change: "Logical Incrementalism." Sloan Management Review, 20 (1), p7.
- Overseas Development Institute Research and Policy in Development Group; Fundamental decisions vs disjointed incrementalism ('muddling through')
- Raghu Garuda & Peter Karnøe; "Bricolage versus breakthrough: distributed and embedded agency in technology entrepreneurship", Research Policy 32 (2003) 277–300
- "Hannity". Hannity. 2009-07-08.
- F. Borum and PH Kristiansen (Copenhagen, 1989); "Industrial Innovation and Incremental Learning: The Case of Danish Wind Technology from 1975 to 1988