Two ways of implementing change

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Small changes, big changes – both are good in their place.  Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

There are perhaps two main generic ways of implementing change, whether it is in business life, personal life, or spiritual life.

  1. Incremental changes (evolution)
  2. Radical step changes (revolution)
INCREMENTAL CHANGES

Incremental changes are those we make bit by bit, almost by stealth.  An example is the change in British Cycling after 2003.  Under new coach Dave Brailsford, a strategy came into vogue called ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’.  In plain English, if you can make hundreds of tiny positive adjustments to your processes, then they add up to a major improvement.  (You can read more about it here: https://jamesclear.com/marginal-gains)

STEP CHANGES

Step changes are those changes we make all in one go.  An example is the person who suddenly makes a decision to give up smoking, and from that moment doesn’t look back.  Step changes often have a trigger, which releases latent energy.  In the case of the smoker giving up, it may be a doctor’s health warning, which focuses years of frustrated hopes of giving up, and resolves them into a definite decision.

WHICH ARE BEST, INCREMENTAL OR STEP CHANGES?

Many psychologists would be sceptical about step changes, and would suggest that incremental changes provide the best route to change.   This is partly because there is a stronger body of research justifying incremental habit change, than there is justifying radical steps.  It is a fairly common sense reflection that embedded and realistic habits stick, whereas dramatic changes can cause a rebound.

However, there is something to be said on the side of step changes.  Firstly, step changes are harder to control in laboratory settings, and therefore one would expect a weaker body of research.  This does not mean that advantages are not there – they may just be harder to tease out and see.

In particular, step changes have the advantage of removing a person from their previous environment, releasing more of the mind’s resources for new things.  This is why some people find residential courses helpful – the new learning becomes tied in with a new environment, and both can reinforce each other.  On a more sinister note, it is why cults often insist that a person leave their usual home and family and separate themselves: a more radical change of context can release tremendous change, partly because it uproots old habits.

Perhaps a wise answer to the question is that both incremental and step change can be helpful, but each in its place.

Whilst I wouldn’t seek to judge anyone’s life and make prescriptions, here are some possibilities…

WHERE INCREMENTAL CHANGE CAN BE GOOD

Making tiny, incremental changes can be good where the general context of someone’s life is satisfactory.  In other words, if you feel you’re going in the right general direction, and are happy with it, then you can afford to examine the little things you do each day, and progressively modify them until you have something that works even better.  In business, for instance, this might involve looking at existing business processes, and rationalising them to make them simpler and more effective.

WHERE STEP CHANGE CAN BE GOOD

Step changes can be good where the general context of someone’s life is unsatisfactory.  If somehow the whole direction feels wrong, and is making you unhappy, then playing with the little things may be futile, and something more radical may be necessary.  To go back to a business analogy, if a whole business model is not making a profit, then there may be no point improving micro-processes interminably – the time may have come to restrategise completely.

One word of warning, though: with step changes, it is worth making extra sure that the step change is desirable.  For example, in counselling, a sensible counsellor will encourage a client not to take radical steps until they are a fair way into a counselling relationship, so that they don’t jump ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’.

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A SUMMARY

When we want to improve our lives, we can make either small incremental changes, or more radical step changes.

Broadly speaking, there is a stronger body of psychological research justifying incremental change – a gradual modifying of processes and habits.  This is mainly because such changes are more likely to stick.  Such improvement tactics are likely to be very helpful if you are generally happy with your current environment and direction.

However, where there is a strong sense of dissatisfaction with, or failure in, a current environment, a step change into a new structure or environment can have the advantage of uprooting old habits quite quickly.  (However, if you are contemplating a step change, then take a good amount of time assessing whether the step change is truly desirable.)

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