The Problem With Incremental Change

So you want to bring about change but you’re afraid of the pushback that you know the change will create?

Totally understand that.

So you’re tempted to do what many leaders have done. Instead of bringing about the deep or radical change you know needs to happen, you decide to introduce change incrementally.

Rather than remove the furniture you know needs to go, you move it an inch a week, hoping nobody will notice.

Rather than fire the poor performer, you transfer him to a new position and hope one day he’ll leave.

Rather than kill the programs that need to go, you add a few new ones instead and skirt the real issue.

Rather than make all the changes you know need to be made, you create a 10 year time line, thinking that people will better accept the change the longer you delay.

Sound familiar?

What’s wrong with this picture?

More than a few things actually.


The Problem With Incremental Change

The problem with incremental change…

…is that it brings incremental results.

If you want incremental results, then embrace incremental change.

The reality is that most leaders don’t want incremental results.

You dream of significant results.  Of radically different results.

Yet for some reason too many leaders fall for the leadership lie that incremental change will usher in radically different results.

It won’t.

Radical change brings the potential for radical results.

Incremental change never does.

Why Do Leaders Fall For This?

Why do you as a leader talk yourself into believing that incremental change will produce the results you’re looking for?

There are at least three reasons:

1. You fear people’s reaction to significant change

You’ve seen other leaders get crucified for ushering in change. And you don’t want that to be you.

Fear is one of the main reasons change isn’t happening fast enough in the church or in many organizations today.

Personally, I think it would be a terrible thing to stand before God one day and explain that the main reason you didn’t do what you were called to do is because you were afraid.

Do you really want fear to be your final epitaph as a leader?

Or would you rather go down trying?

Personally, I’d rather die trying.

2. Past opposition to change

You tried change once, and it failed.

Well, awesome.

You also had a bad meal once, but you didn’t stop eating.

Why is it leaders shy away from change once they’ve had any opposition to it?

Maybe the change itself isn’t the problem.

Maybe your strategy is the problem.

This is why I outlined 5 specific strategies to lead change in the face of opposition in my book Leading Change Without Losing It.  And why I’m so passionate about helping leaders navigate change.

Just because you failed at leading change once doesn’t mean you’ll fail forever.

Get a new strategy. What’s at stake is far too important not to.

3. Belief that progress should come without pain

Now we get closer to the heart of the matter. Many leaders secretly wish progress came without pain.

Progress almost never comes without pain.

Significant things are rarely accomplished without significant struggle.

Our heroes are always people who suffered to bring about a better end. Part of us wants to live like that, and part of us doesn’t.

The leadership question is whether you’re willing to endure pain for the sake of a better future.

Real leaders say yes to that. They honestly do.

So…if you want significantly different results, push past the fear and stop thinking incrementally.

Incremental change brings about incremental results.

Now you know what you’re dealing with.

What are you learning about change?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

The Problem With Incremental Change


  1. Char Seawell on August 11, 2015 at 10:19 am

    Like many of the readers, I agree that fear should not drive decisions, but what I have noticed through the process of leadership change is that the congregation is not taught how to transition before new leadership takes over. There is a grieving process in change which, if left unacknowledged creates deep problems for the new leadership. I say this as a 62 year old who has seen it all and been hammered by it all in leadership. In our general culture, we have few rituals for dealing with transitions. I have this idea that when leadership changes in a church, the new pastor should not take over for at least a month. During that time, the congregation needs to be led through a time of reflection about God’s view of leaders and their flock. The past needs to be remembered, but not enshrined. People need a process for going through the transition and it needs to happen after prayer and reflection. The other key element is a spiritual growth element. In our me oriented society, members leave when their needs ar not being met. But that is not Biblical. When I was struggling with change in our church, I went to the Word to see what God says about when it is okay to leave a church. You know what I found already. So I looked t this gifted young pastor and realized that the transition was a growth opportunity for me, and that God called me to love my pastor and that God, not people, placed him in our midst with a vision and a purpose for such a time as this. How much better it would have been to go through this process as a church community with each other so that when leadership changed, we could embrace our new leader together and take on our Biblical mandate to be a support and an encouragement.

  2. Tobey on August 5, 2015 at 9:43 am

    I’m gonna go ahead and disagree here. I believe the underlying principles are correct and I believe the “fears” and “past experiences” listed are valid as well. However, while “radical change brings radical results” is true, that doesn’t mean radical results are positive. Someone mentioned it perfectly below in that a radical result could be you out of a job.

    I believe it is good leadership (and that is NOT one person) to be able to identify when a change needs to be introduced incrementally or radically. Let’s remember, when you talk about change, you are talking about culture. Culture cannot be changed radically except by some supernatural event. All of the fears and concerns listed are a result of a singular person taking a radical course. When those involved in the change are brought into the planning and discussion of what is needed, true change will happen and resentment will be minimized.

    People fear and resent change because they are not included in the process. Why would anyone subject a change process to an organization without including as many people as possible. When we believe we are gifted with some supernatural insight that we have the best opinion regarding change, that’s when change drives people away.

    Again, I agree with the underlying principles here, but to cast aside incremental change for the risk of a POTENTIAL result through radical change, is playing with fire.

    Something to think about.. 🙂

  3. Tammy Middleton on August 3, 2015 at 11:59 am

    Another kick-in-the-pants read. Thanks for the reminders and encouragement, Carey!

  4. […] most recent post on incrementalism piqued my interest since I’ve included the problem in one of my chapters in a book I’m […]

  5. jonperrin on July 31, 2015 at 11:26 am

    This is so true! We can’t afford to hold positive change hostage to our fear. Unfortunately you will have people on the other side of the fence that will crush any opposition to their plan in the name of change. Both are wrong.

    Thanks again for cranking out these thought-provoking articles. We’re praying for you!

  6. Ezekiel Abendan on July 31, 2015 at 10:40 am

    Hi Carey. Thanks for these thoughts. It’s very timely for the season that we are in. I’m making a significant change in our student ministry and pulled the plug “cold turkey” because it seems that it was becoming more of hype than a place where people can grow in a relationship with Jesus Christ. A lot of my leaders weren’t happy about it but I really do believe that this where God is leading us. I binge listen to your Podcasts and really appreciate your contribution to our Christian faith. God bless you.

  7. Dan on July 31, 2015 at 10:06 am

    Interesting points, well made, but how do you feel about Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference?” Gladwell’s hypothesis is that little things can indeed make a big difference?

  8. David Moody NZ on July 30, 2015 at 6:47 pm

    Hi Carey, great article. I think that in an organisation such as mine there are other elements at play as well. You bring the perspective from an independent church model. Our ‘way’ is through an appointment of leadership to our churches. With an average term of 3-6 years there’s one problem right off the bat with just always being against the clock and being measured against that through review to a great extent. Even providing a good fit our leaders start with an inherited leadership team and that can be a good thing or an issue when it comes to implementing change and so incrementalism is very often now the benchmark for change comes. Another reality is that there are those who feel they have a greater say in a church or a feel they ought to have a sense of entitlement in their leadership team role because of their heritage or position and that when those aspects of poor leadership are challenged, they simply go off to a higher authority and thus, stymie the progress potential even further. I agree with your three headings but would also add: political and power roadblocks from leaders; how to best lead change with the time you have and how to be the ‘leader’ in a culture when if your leadership isn’t what they like will just mark time until you move on. I know these are not easy issues and I often feel like we need to completely reinvent our movement in regard to its church arm at least because we could be so much more for God! Blessings, David Moody.

    • Travis Stephens on August 5, 2015 at 6:51 am

      I was thinking along the same lines. For pastors who answer to boards or even church members, introducing radical change at any cost is a good way to lose your job. For a pastor in that situation, incremental change may be their only option. And I believe there are some small changes that churches can make that will help them grow without ticking too many people off.

      • RWilliams on January 19, 2016 at 9:23 am

        My question in response to that would be:

        Why work in an environment like that?

        I’ve been there before and ended up not losing my job, but willingly handing it over and finding a new ministry. My written resignation letter stated simply: “God has placed a burden in my heart to see disciples of Jesus made. I can no longer work in an environment where we are unwilling to challenge status quo for the sake of the greater mission to which we have been called.”

        I spent much time after this seeking a ministry where I felt I would be a fit (I have three kids, so I also worked for a temp agency lol)… And I am now working full time at a church that still has a board, but a board that is fully invested in our pastoral staff and trusts our leadership.

        Not saying you should high tail it and leave… Just my thoughts…

  9. Theresa on July 30, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    I’m currently enduring this exact predicament in the workplace. Thanks to leaders like you for encouraging me to do the right thing! I’m standing on truth and fighting the battle! It is my honest belief He placed me where I am for such a time as this!

  10. John Mulholland on July 30, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    On #3- you have to make the pain of remaining the same greater than the pain of the change.

    Solid work.

  11. N Good on July 30, 2015 at 12:47 pm


    I can think of another reason that I have, at times, led incrementally. Considering the situation it seemed that rapid or “radical” change, which had been done many times in the past 20 years, would not bring long term results.
    Sometimes it seems to me that, in our ever changing culture, people EXPECT radical change, and this expectation actually keeps them from asking some deeper and harder questions.
    Perhaps sometimes it is appropriate to put the brakes on and change things incrementally so that the change is meaningful and sticks long-term.

    Nathan Good

  12. Bud Brown on July 30, 2015 at 8:02 am

    Carey, it seems to me that the three items you mention all have one thing in common: a pastor who’s identity in Christ is insecure but instead looks to other people for affirmation of worth as a person.

    Mind you, no one looks for or relishes conflict. But those who are secure in Christ and who have a clear sense of mission don’t shrink in the face of opposition and past failures.

    They run to the sound of gun fire.

    They LEAD!

    Those who allow the three items you’ve identified – and yes, there are people in positions of leadership who are stymied – are not leaders.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.