Whatever Happened to Logical Incrementalism?

Murray Pratt Blog, Business Insights, Current Events

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The Four Tops sang it so well: “It’s the same old song, with a different beat since you been gone”

We have come to the end of our second year here at Tailwind with our true web-based transportation management software program. We released 41 improvements to our application in the past month alone – and over 200 in the past year.

I am proud of the pace and speed with which we have improved our platform and our business since we launched late 2016. Specifically, I am proud of the passion and insight that our people have poured into creating, supporting, marketing and servicing the platform for our customers.

I am sure that some of our customers and partners feel that we haven’t gotten there fast enough, while there are many others who are surprised that we either have a particular feature, or are quite pleased at the pace with which we are able to act upon their feedback and requests for new features and enhancements.

It made me think about a quote by Bill Gates:

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”

A Brief History

Today I am also reflecting back to a time 37 years ago, when I was a freshman business student at McMaster University attending classes and studying some of the most advanced management techniques at the time.

And today, I am also thinking about a a concept called Logical Incrementalism.

It was an advanced management concept of the day created and coined by James Brian Quinn, and advanced and promoted by the noted management guru from McGill University, Henry Mintzberg, whose writings on the topic I first learned from.

It holds that business strategy is not developed at one particular point of time – by some singular big-bang burst of insight – but rather through a series of small decisions evaluated periodically; small decisions not made randomly but entered into as a logical consequence of experimentation and learning.

(Please note: I use references gleaned from Wikipedia in these articles. I donate to Wikipedia.  I strongly encourage all of you to do the same. Besides my conviction that an educated mind is our best defense as citizens in our society, I believe that it can help solve the back problems incurred by encyclopedia salespeople in the world!)

And today, some 37 years later, 33 years after graduation, and after practice at various companies, in a variety of roles – some junior, some senior – I feel that it represents the most honest rendering of what strategy and business is all about. I think of it as the ‘Darwin’s Theory of Business Evolution because it speaks to the need of companies to adapt to the changing circumstances of their markets.

Which brings us to today, where I know that the biggest mistake a business can make is ‘not learning from your mistakes’ – more precisely, that if you are not advocating and promoting a company culture that learns from its mistakes, and creating processes that support that, you are heading down the road to failure.

But in applying the concept correctly you can take a SaaS software company from a place of ‘improbability’ to one of ‘inevitability’.

Logical incrementalism posits that you must experiment. More profoundly, in using that word experiment, it means that you are going to make mistakes. Even more profoundly, it means you must learn to ACCEPT mistakes.

A Longer History

Today, we understand Logical Incrementalism as the early foundations of Continuous Improvement – the Total Quality movement applied to business strategy.

But the concept of ‘Continuous Improvement’ just seems to have so much more cachet. I always felt that Logical Incrementalism was a bit like the Betamax. It was good, but it got beat out by a more accepted and standardized technology.

The advent of the Total Quality movement in North America started in the 1980’s, coinciding with the advance of Japanese car makers against the US auto industry – who were, ironically, applying the learnings of an American engineer with expertise in physics, mathematics, and statistical process control, W. Edwards Deming.

When the US automakers looked at the first arrivals from Japan – the Datsun, the Honda Civic Hatchback – they were not impressed by the cars, even as their price point set off alarms. But what they soon learned is that the ability of Japanese car companies to consistently improve their products based on ongoing and systematic customer input and feedback was the essence of their success – not the particular car model they launched that year. And as we all know, it resulted in a complete transformation of the North American auto-market that is still with us today.

As a newbie at Procter & Gamble in the early 80’s, I remember a time when we attended a workshop on how to apply Total Quality principles to our sales department. It was a bit challenging, adapting what was primarily manufacturing-centric concept into the sales function. (I think it was also when they invented the term ‘Herding Cats.’)

It was a noble effort, but most of it went for naught. I believe it took technology – CRM systems, specifically – to apply the concepts effectively to the sales function. Less opinions and more data and facts now, is all I will say.

The Logical Incrementalism concept has evolved and expanded so much today that is it barely recognizable from its original form – and ipso facto, by the very application of the concept itself, logical incrementalism has really morphed into the ‘Continuous Improvement’ movement which has transformed all matter of things in our business and society today, greatly improving the quality of our lives.

The biggest asset in today’s business world – and certainly in the world of Transportation Management Software (where we happen to ply our trade) – isn’t necessarily the resources and assets at your disposal at the moment, but rather your ability as a company to improve and advance your business more consistently and more quickly than ‘the next guy’.

Looking Forward

Looking to next year – we look not only to how we can improve our products, but how we can improve our departments, our business, and our own work activities – the way we work together to do all this ‘stuff’ that we do.

I know that we owe our advancement today, and we will owe our future success, to the application of ‘continuous improvement’ concepts, but I feel we should at least give a nod to James Brian Quinn and Henry Mintzberg for their seminal work in this area.

Their original thinking about Logical Incrementalism have been guiding us all along the way.

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