The tranquilizing drug of gradualism

In his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged a slow and steady pathway to civil rights reform.

Those in favor of an incremental approach feared that making waves–that being too confrontational–would backfire. It was seen as too risky a strategy.

MLK argued that patiently working against the wrongs endured by millions created the illusion of progress. He worried that by merely chipping away at injustice, we were lulled into a sense of advancement when very little was actually being accomplished. Gradualism was not only misguided, it was actually more risky. Ultimately, our delusions prevented us from making substantive change; the change that was so desperately needed.

These challenges are hardly unique to the struggle for social justice.

Many organizations say all the right things but do very little. Companies invest piles of money and countless hours in largely meaningless tweaks to their offerings. Simple product line extensions count for “innovation” at most brands. New executive titles are created, and organizations re-shuffled, to give us a sense that we are doing something. Yet that something is typically more of the same under a different guise. All too often we become intoxicated by our words at the expense of our actions.

Continuous improvement amidst fundamental disruption doesn’t cut it.

A go slow approach to innovation when customers and markets are evolving rapidly only guarantees that we will fall further and further behind.

A frenzy of activity (supported by cool PowerPoint decks) may make us feel good, but until it ships it doesn’t count.

And unless we can rise above the clutter and the sea of sameness–if our work doesn’t make waves–we might as well not bother in the first place.

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