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Yesterday, as I was following up on a suggestion from one of our Fall Project interview participants, I ended up chatting with a colleague about iterative versus incremental change.

It occurred to me that, while I’ve been using the word “iterative” for years, I’ve never really considered it’s nuances.

Through our Fall Project interviews, many public sector leaders have talked about the necessity of incremental change. This concept comes out of Charles Lindblom’s seminal work, “The Science of Muddling Through.” Lindblom argues that in a world of complex relationships and policy aspirations, we never have perfect enough information or processes to make perfect policy decisions. Instead, we are stuck using imperfect information and processes to make imperfect decisions. This forces us to depend on subjective interpretations of policy options, and leaves us at the mercy of interpersonal power dynamics among the participants in a given decision. Given this situation, policy advisors must persuade decision makers to act through painstaking, resource intensive, and lengthy negotiations that eek out policy choices one by one. As a result, while the vision driving policy advisors and decision makers may be at times transformative in nature, the pace of change is almost always incremental.

I am easily persuaded of Linblom’s argument, but I have also become wary of it in recent years. Not only does incremental change fail to effect transformational results in most cases, even after years of painstaking progress on an issue, but it can lesson the vision of what is possible. It seems often as though many of us become comfortable with the idea that incrementalism is necessary, and are satisfied with it (or at least resigned to it). My friend Katie Boothe, a political science professor at McMaster University, recently wrote an excellent article on this very subject.

Iterative change, on the other hand, is slightly different. An iterative change or process is one in which the participants believe it will be possible to go back and correct mistakes. To use a simple example, when drafting a report for an multi-stakeholder committee, it is often all but certain that most people around the table will disagree – fiercely – with something in the document. It can often be helpful in these cases to agree as a group in advance that an “iterative process” will be used. In other words, to agree that the report won’t be prefect, that it will require changes – in some cases significant ones – and that there will be a process through which mistakes and areas of concern will be addressed.

Iterative change, like incremental change, is based on the premise that information and processes are imperfect. But unlike incremental change, iterative change is not based on the long game of effecting transformational change bit by bit. It is more focused on the imperative for action, now, even when the action is imperfect. It humbly accepts that our attempts to solve problems won’t achieve illusive silver bullets, but it tries to do something good anyway, with optimism.

All this reflecting left me wondering if there isn’t an important distinction that needs to be made between incremental and iterative policy development approaches. In my musing, I drafted this graphic.

I’m interested in what others think about this. Is there a significant distinction between these approaches? Have others commented on it in the past? Can these approaches exist simultaneously? What are the differentiating characteristics?

Drop me a line.

Until next time!

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