I have been reflecting on the consequences of incrementalism for a while and have come to recognize a disturbing pattern manifested in our western world across multiple aspects of our daily lives (not only in businesses, but in many aspects of everyday life). In fact, I have become convinced that incrementalism across developed countries opens a unique opportunity to entrepreneurs from the developing world.
This idea is captured by the boiling frog story. This well-known anecdote describes a frog slowly being boiled alive. The lesson is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out and survive, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.
Companies and leaders try to make the most out of their strengths. At business school, we teach that companies, people, and even countries should focus on what they do best. Certainly, the frog feels incrementally better as the cold water becomes a bit warmer. Likewise, businesses benefit from each incremental improvement of their products or services, while often the overall process could be harmful for the enterprise. Every strength, once at its limit, becomes a liability and after a while we become unable to see the consequences of the long sum of these incremental changes. Even in the rare case that the adverse consequences are seen, we might be unwilling to speak-up against the dominant corporate orthodoxy (what I have called during my corporate career the “conspiracy of silence”).
Today, globalization and the lowering barriers to access (technology, markets, capital, etc.), are creating unique opportunities for foreign entrepreneurs; in particular in emerging countries. Since they are not invested in old/established paradigms, they are able to scale globally the opportunities they have developed for their local markets. However, these solutions become more compelling when the market needs of the developed and developing markets are in alignment. In these cases, innovations from emerging countries are not wed to the status quo (or as Machiavelli called “… the established order of things…”) but rather seek cost-effective/superior solutions to their market pains.
The consequences of incrementalism are being exacerbated, as time accelerates and side-effects happen faster and more frequently. Furthermore, the population growth is aggravating this trend, as we anticipate in about a dozen years we will share the planet with 8 billion people and moving quickly to 9 billion well before mid-century.
Some evidence with a few examples:
- How did we get over a hundred chemicals in our processed food? One at a time! Each had a unique benefit making our food taste a little bit better, prolonging its shelf life a little bit longer, making its color a little bit more appealing, making its manufacturing a little bit cheaper, etc. I can almost imagine every corporate meeting when every decision was being made––in fact I have been in some of them. And I can also remember how the meeting participants felt after each incremental improvement (in isolation) was fully justified. As the market responded positively, raises/bonuses/and stock options were distributed and each corporate executive felt pumped, paving the way for the next executive team seeking a larger reward by seeking the next incremental improvement. Unfortunately, the end result is that the initial tasty natural product became more a product of a chemistry lab than of nature, and sure enough decades later we discovered that, in the aggregate, these chemicals have had harmful effects on our lives. It made us more obese, raised our blood pressure, caused diabetes, or even created a dependency we previously didn’t have!
- We now look back at the demise of Arthur Andersen, an auditing company that shined for integrity and ethical standards. However, tempted to emulate the revenues and margins of their consulting cousins, Arthur Anderson started to push the envelope and add creativity and imagination to what it was the “predictably dull” auditing activities. Every time, they were more aggressive in pushing the line enabling management to unleash their “innovative” practices for financial reward. Eventually, the ethical line was irreversibly crossed for the benefit of a few senior partners and the ruin of the entire firm.
- Kodak was once the undisputed leader of film photography and was driven out of existence by incrementally improving film photography (does anyone remember “Aptiva”?) and ignoring digital photography.
- Digital Equipment Corporation (“DEC”) was a revered start-up from Route 128 (remember when Boston’s Route 128 was in the same sentence as Silicon Valley?) and my former employer. DEC was extraordinary successful in democratizing the access to computers by bringing the Mini (computer) out from the data center and into the department, in the cube next door. Yet, DEC was driven out of existence developing more and more powerful minis, in the process coining the term “Maxi-Minis” missing completely the PC market.
In the last four examples the frog is boiled to death! And these successful enterprises disappeared. It would be overly simplistic to point all reasons to incrementalism, but I would argue that it did play a significant role in their demise!
At this point I would be tempted to open the debate on how incrementalism is having a perverted effect on society at-large, and venture into the world of moral relativism and the globalization of superficiality. However, I’ll resist the temptation, leave that for my coffee discussions with my close friends and family, and stick with the relevance of this post to the business world.
The relevancy of incrementalism as a theme for this blog-post is that its best antidote for enterprises incrementing themselves is innovation. And the likely consequence for those who fall victim of its lethal addiction is to become a “boiled frog”. Its end-result is corporate atrophy, carefully developed year after successful year yielding as end result its inability to perform a paradigm change.
Every business strength successfully utilized year after year,
at its limit could become a liability to the entire enterprise…
Enter foreign entrepreneurs from emerging countries, who aspire to tackle the preeminent market opportunities of this era, including: providing better education for growing numbers of people, enabling participation in a knowledge/networked economy, increasing life expectancy by improving the effectiveness of and access to health care, and applying innovative green technologies to mitigate and prevent further global environmental degradation. These entrepreneurs are free to choose new solutions unconstrained by the dominant logic and unsettled in the psychological comfort zone of “on-the-job-retired” executives. This allows them to be maximally innovative in their selection of business models to enable the viral penetration. If proven successful these frugal innovations from emerging regions can also expand globally into the developed world!
At what point does incremental innovation becomes harmful? And at what point does that perilous comfort afforded by managing the “known” open up the flanks of established enterprises to attack by the young entrepreneurs from the fledging South who are willing to plunge into new disruptive paradigms?
In a future post, I will connect human centered design and design thinking as radical departures from incremental revenue maximization/cost minimization centered design.
Let me know what you think, especially if you disagree.
Until my next blog – Carlos B.
 Nicolás, Adolfo, “Depth, Universality, and Learned Ministry: Challenges to Jesuit Higher Education Today.” Remarks for “Networking Jesuit Higher Education: Shaping the Future for a Humane, Just, Sustainable Globe.” Mexico City. 23 April 2010. Available online: http://www.sjweb.info/documents/ansj/100423_Mexico%20City_Higher%20Education%20Today_ENG.pdf.