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- In politics, the term Incrementalism is also used as a synonym for Gradualism.
Incrementalism is a method of working by adding to a project using many small incremental changes instead of a few (extensively planned) large jumps. 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.
The Political Scientist, Charles E. Lindblom, developed Incrementalism in the mid 1950’s. “The Science of Muddling Through” (1959), was an essay Lindblom wrote to help policymakers understand why they needed to consider a different approach when making policy changes. The goal for the new perspective of Incrementalism was for policy makers to avoid making changes before they really engaged and rationally thought through the issue.
Contrasts to other planning methodologies
In large projects following some type of strategic planning, there is normally a need to allocate time to plan the project in order to avoid "fire fighting", in other words the avoidance of time delaying issues. 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. This means muddling through the issues at hand based on importance.
Strategic implementation would be a very well thought out plan of implementation being the opposite to incrementalism. Although the plan involved with the strategic implementation might work incrementally it has set objectives at set times with little to no intention of muddling through the process. In other words every part of the implementation would be expected and planned for ahead of time.
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.
Pros and Cons
The advantages of incrementalism over other formal systems is that no time is wasted planning for outcomes which may not occur.
- Simplicity: This type of budgeting is very simple to understand. Compared to some of the other budgeting methods used in business, it is one of the easiest to put in practice. Therefore, you do not have to be an accountant or have much experience in business to use this form of budgeting.
- Gradual change: With this type of budgeting, you will have a very stable budget from one period to the next. This allows for gradual change within the company. Many managers are intimidated by large budget increases from one period to the next. With this type of budget, you will not run into this problem because it is based on the previous period's budget.
- Flexibility: This type of budgeting is very flexible. You can easily do it from one month to the next. This allows you to see change very quickly when you implement a new policy or budget.
- Avoid conflict: Companies with many different departments often run into conflict between departments because of their different budgets. With this method of budgeting, it is easier to keep everyone on the same page and avoid conflicts between departments
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 intended: a slippery slope.
- Does not account for change: This method is based on the idea that expenses will run pretty much as they did before. However, in business, this is rarely the case. There are always variables.
- No incentives: Such a simple method of budgeting really does not provide your employees with much reason to be creative. They have no incentive to innovate and come up with new ideas or policies because everything is limited.
- Use it or lose it: Many employees view this as a "use it or lose it" system. They know that next year's budget is going to be incrementally based on this year's. Therefore, if they do not spend everything that is allocated to them, they may not have enough money to work with next year. This creates an environment where waste is encouraged.
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.
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.
The Central Arizona Project and the Salt River Project display the use of Innovation and incrementalism. There was a Plan 6 cost-sharing program that was a component in both of these projects and displayed innovations of the external enforcers and internal entrepreneurs and how they muddled through as well as collaborated incrementally to work on these projects with many different players in the mix.
The resource allocation in local authorities is riddled by politics and provides the underlying methods of incrementalism in the negotiations process of putting local authorities priorities together. Looking the United States Federal Budget is a back and forth negotiation between politicians and provides great insight of incremental change. Every year a new budget must be formed to allocate funds to the agencies such as the DoD and government programs such as Social Security and Medicare. The amounts with which are decided gradually change based on the importance as well as efficiencies and inefficiencies of agencies or priorities.
In the case of climate change the opinions changed gradually over the years as more and more scientific evidence became clear to policy makers that it should be a prevalent policy issue. Political economy of climate change and Politics of global warming are worth noting on the international scale of climate change policy and how there has been an incremental leaning towards the belief and action against climate change over the years.
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.
- Integrated Strategies
- Conventional wisdom
- Ipso facto
- Organization theory
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- Knaggård, Å. (2014). What do policy-makers do with scientific uncertainty? The incremental character of Swedish climate change policy-making. Policy Studies, 35(1), 22-39. doi:10.1080/01442872.2013.804175
- Overseas Development Institute Research and Policy in Development Group; Fundamental decisions vs disjointed incrementalism ('muddling through')