In Praise of Incrementalism (It Depends)

It was a few months after I arrived in Silicon Valley when I posted the following on the Internet: 

Incrementalism is a winning strategy when you totally forget to stop.

[1]

It was counter to what I knew from my time in the research world as espoused to me that same month by my former boss and mentor Nicholas Negroponte:

“Incrementalism is the enemy of creativity.”

[2] 

And so I began to wonder whether I should listen to the founder of the Media Lab and a card-carrying member of the Temple of Design? Or do I listen to the folks in Silicon Valley whizzing about in autonomous vehicles and annoying scooters? Fortunately, HR came to my rescue — well metaphorically and not directly. Because an HR leader had this habit of answering all of my tough questions with a smile and telling me compassionately that:

It depends.

[3]

So it depends. It depends upon what point you are at when seeking to disrupt an industry or when sustaining your leading position in the industry. When first starting out to disrupt an industry, you need to eschew incrementalism and seek the unusual and unsafe path. When leading an industry you need to incrementally hop forward faster than your competition. And if you’re lucky to be an industry leader and you have excess resources to re-invest in ways to disrupt yourself, then all might be well for you when you do so. But in all timings and all cases, there is no success that can be guaranteed and you need to rely on being lucky, or as the late General Douglas MacArthur once said:

“The best luck of all is the luck you make for yourself.”

[4]

[1] Twitter (2014)

[2] Twitter (2014)

[3] “New Design Religion” https://design.google/library/john-maeda-interview-new-design-religion/

[4] “Luck Trends” https://maeda.pm/2019/04/20/luck-trends/

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