The power of incrementalism

Real digital transformation isn't revolutionary as much as it's evolutionary. Let us help you avoid "abrupt-ism."

Human beings dislike doing anything incrementally.

The sad truth is that we much prefer letting things fall apart, then expending heroic effort to put them back together, striving to make them even better than they were before. Instead of taking continual steps forward at a steady pace, we hang out at the starting line for a long time, or even run backwards, then suddenly sprint forward to “win” the race.

And sure, we may have crossed the finish line before than the steady runner, but they were in front for 99% of time. In an actual race, this doesn’t matter, but in life it generally does. It’s not who finishes first that matters, it’s who was reaping the benefits of being in front longer.


  • Instead of managing our fitness, we gain weight and are sedentary until that moment when we “get back in shape” just long enough to prove the point, then fall back our own habits and then the cycle repeats. In reality, the secret to fitness is boring – you get up and go to the gym more often than you sleep in.

  • Instead of maintaining a city’s infrastructure, we just let it go because no one complains until it gets really bad, then we pass a massive bill to build a dozen new bridges that we let fall apart again. (John Oliver has a funny bit about how an action movie about infrastructure would actually be the most boring movie ever, and it absolutely should be.)

  • Too often, we don’t incrementally improve our website. Rather, we just let it sit for years until someone finally gets annoyed enough to launch a “website redesign project” and we throw everything away and start over, only to let it sit again until we cross the same threshold a few years down the road.

Why do we do this?

I’m convinced it’s because incrementalism is boring. We don’t like the predictable, behind-the-scenes movements that go unnoticed in the short term. We like big gestures – standing ovations, organizational attention, and slaps on the back for “a job well done.”

Remember, politicians enjoy getting elected far more then they enjoy serving. I’m reminded of George Washington’s line in Hamilton:

Winning was easy, son. Governing is harder.

When it comes to digital marketing, “abrupt-ism” makes it very hard to figure out what works and what doesn’t. We often build websites without any plan to measure what we’ve done, much less improve on it over time.

In a chapter of my last book, I wrote about how this makes it very hard to figure out ROI of any change.

[…] the scale of change you’re undergoing might disrupt user patterns to the point where you’re not measuring a “change” so much as you’re creating something entirely new. You’re not moving along a known scale; rather, you’re implementing an entirely new scale. How do you measure the change in a conversion action that didn’t exist before?

It seems that everyone wants to build websites, but no one wants to actually use them for their intended purpose. They’re just happy that they exist and “the project is complete.”

I worked in professional services for 15 years, and I can tell you dozens of stories of calls we would get from customers for whom we launched a website a full year ago: “Hey, can we get the password again?” It would then become obvious they had never even logged into the website they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on. When the project wrapped up and the applause died down, so did their interest.

At Optimizely we have two products that can help you commit to incremental progress rather than hope for sporadic windfalls.

  • Optimizely Recommendations will help you stay on top of your content. Instead of launching with a massive content strategy effort, this product will continually crawl, analyze, and index your content so you know what topics you’re addressing to what audience, and where your gaps are.

  • Our experimentation tools – Optimizely Web Experimentation and Optimizely Feature Experimentation – let you make small changes to your digital channels, and measure them against a baseline, so you can keep what works, and build on it over time.

To be clear, both these products require commitment. Nothing in the digital world is magic, but they can help you make the small, incremental choices and adjustments that keep your channels performing over time by making it clear what works and what doesn’t.

Remember, small decisions compound. Getting just 1% better every business day makes you 12x better over the course of a year. You move forward in inches, not miles. (Atomic Habits – yeah, I went there.)

But it’s hard to measure change when you keep throwing everything away. Every digital project is a bundle of thousands of decisions. If you toss it all in favor of something new, and things improve, well, which change improved it?

You can never measure that, so you just chalk the improvement up to “all the changes,” which is accurate, but not scalable. If you need your conversion rate to go up, you can’t throw everything away and just re-implement “all the changes” again and hope things pan out.

Ironically, I feel like vendors exacerbate this with vague phrases like “digital transformation.” While the idea of complete changing the way your organization relates to its audiences is an admirable goal, I’ve always felt that “digital evolution” is probably a more accurate way to put it. It’s healthier and more sustainable to absorb changes over time, by testing and adjustment.

Atul Gawande is a health writer for the New Yorker. He wrote a thoughtful article called The Heroism of Incremental Care in which he explains why he became a surgeon, and how this thinking has changed on where the real value of health care lies.

I was drawn to medicine by the aura of heroism – by the chance to charge in and solve a dangerous problem. [But] success is not about the episodic, momentary victories. It is about the longer view of incremental steps that produce sustained progress.

Remember the race analogy from the beginning? It’s much better to have a digital presence that’s 90% great over a long period than one that’s 50% most of the time, then 100% for a couple weeks at the end. “Sustained progress,” as Gawande points out, is measured by your average effectiveness over an extended time period, rather than an arbitrary snapshot of one magical moment.

Measurable success in digital marketing is – dare I say it – …boring? It’s not won by repeated teardown and rebuild projects. Rather, it’s won by:

  • A competent and flexible CMS as the foundation of your tech stack. (Forrester says Optimizely CMS might be just such a product.)

  • A solid working relationship with an implementation partner who understands your goals, your budget, and your internal capacities. (I’ve written about this particular topic at length: Towards an Invested Engagement Model)

  • An analytics and experimentation platform that lets you track behaviors, make changes, and examine the results in context. Accept that your content is never optimal on launch – you should always be testing and experimenting with your content at some level to make it better.

  • Digital leadership that knows this a marathon, not a sprint, and who understands that not everything is going to work. But so long as you learn from every change, and keep slowly moving ahead, that’s sustainable progress.

  • Commitment to the sometimes-boring, often-unglamourous, usually routine work that goes into building an incrementally successful online presence.

Stop doing “abrupt-ism.” Stop tearing everything apart and starting over. Commit to this next revolution being your last.

The process of incremental improvement may not be as exciting as ripping everything up and starting over every year, but your launch date should be the starting line, not the finish line. Once you’ve launched your new digital project, that’s when the real work begins.