The Importance of Incremental Change

–                  Steve Marr

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Most change in business is incremental.  That means that one small change or improvement builds upon another.  Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Tipping Point (Back Bay Books, 2002),  makes the case that small incremental changes can reach a point where they tip to unleash a flood of success. The result isn’t so much about the last step, but about the culmination of many steps.

Think about the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Each piece of straw had limited impact.  Eventually the camel collapses, not because of a bit of straw; but from many bits of straw continuously piled on top of him.

In Scripture we learn that Absalom led a revolt against his father, King David (See 2 Samuel 15-18). While Absalom launched the uprising on a certain day, over time he had been meeting with the people and turning away the people of Israel one person at a time.  If the revolt had started much earlier, nothing would have happened.  Few would have followed Absalom. The key was the incremental day-by-day change that reached a tipping point that made the revolt possible.

Many skills require 5,000 hours of work to master. Consider the road to becoming a professional athlete. At a young age some have far more natural talent than others.  However a 12 year old doesn’t compete with professionals. Step by step, with good coaching and practice, a young player gets better day by day and week by week. When a star emerges we respond as if they came from nowhere. Most often they came from years of hard work, gaining incremental improvement over time.

During my business career, I was thrust into selling part time. It was in the mid 1970’s.  Business was down during a recession and all managers were dispatched to get new business.  I was assigned to make customer calls four to five days a month.  I had very little experience in sales. Over time I learned the basics.  However in the beginning I tried to make the most calls possible with little success.  Then I learned how to qualify prospects.  That led to more effective calls and more business.

I needed to understand how to get to the point quickly.  I learned that I had less than five minutes to hook a customer.  I had to fine tune how to best use that time. I needed to understand how to respond to customer questions in ways that would help move toward a sale.  I needed to ask good questions that would draw out possible opportunities for a sale. I also needed to learn how to close a sale and follow up.

Over time, I was able to develop competency in sales work. To move from being a newbie to achieving competency in sales took several years and many hours of work.  I had to improve a little bit every week.  After the recession passed I focused most of my time on operations. However I maintained a prospective customer contact list.  I made sure to carve out time to meet with customers and new prospects regularly. Incremental change and improvement was my friend.

Another example comes from a Phoenix restaurant. Business had been growing slowly.  Then after an outstanding review of the restaurant in the local paper there was a major increase in business.   Many people ascribed the boost to the newspaper article. However, looking deeper, the owner and chef had worked for several years to improve the menu items using fresh ingredients and sauces.  They also addressed attentive service. While service had been good for the three years before the restaurant had consistently made improvements. Had the dining critic reviewed the establishment three years earlier, the feedback may have been mediocre.  It probably would not have generated such an increase in business. Because of small step-by-step improvements the restaurant had delivered food and service at a much higher standard.

The Lord told the people, “Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.” (Exodus 23:30, NIV) When Israel was taking possession of the Promised Land progress was slow because moving the people was a slow process. While they made some progress each day, you would have seen little change most of the time. However within a generation they occupied the land.

Often I work with a business owner who is looking for that big breakthrough that will change everything. Over and over I must remind business leaders that it is the daily details that eventually make the big differences.  Incremental change is your ally.  Make sure your business plan addresses this important principle.

Steve Marr has learned from 40 years of business experience that God’s way works.  As an author, speaker, radio host, and business consultant, Marr helps companies and organizations apply the ancient wisdom of the Bible to avoid the common mistakes and headaches of growing a business. Steve is the CEO of the fourth largest import-export firm in the United States.Through one-on-one consulting, Marr connects with business leaders and helps them apply the Bible’s wisdom. He offers practical advice and solutions that help business owners get started, move to the next level, or respond to a crisis that threatens their company. Marr has written several books and also shares his insights through a syndicated monthly business column. He can also be heard on through the one-minute radio feature “Business Proverbs,” heard on over 1,200 radio stations internationally.Marr also speaks at conferences and offers seminars for businesses and organizations. He’s worked with the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, The Salvation Army, appeared on The 700 Club and 100 Huntley Street, consulted for Family Life Radio Network.

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Filed under Exchange: The Journal of Mission and Markets, Faith in the Marketplace

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