The Incremental Entrepreneur

The drive from New York to Los Angeles covers 2,791.8 miles. Or put another way, that is 176,888,448 inches. And to show you that I am not playing favorites – for those of you who prefer the metric scale, the New York to LA trip spans 449,295,541.2 centimeters. Why the obsession with inches (or centimeters)? Simply put, it is about progress. Totally confused? Let me explain.    

We all know that progress is “a movement toward a goal or to a further or higher stage,” according to most dictionaries. We entrepreneurs hold a steadfast belief that progress is the Holy Grail, and wheel spinning will send us spiraling into a major funk. Even progress that seems too slow to us can be cause for great angst. I certainly stand before you guilty as charged! But here is what I have learned. Sweeping change may not be lasting. Here is an example. Suppose that our business begins to grow at a very rapid pace. Year-over-year our top line revenues (fueled by sales) increases 35% to 50%. What a wonderful problem to have – right? Well, rapid growth comes with a price. Often, there is not time to lay a solid foundation of systems and processes. We are just go-go-go all the time. And the success masks over the rickety infrastructure that may have been installed in haphazard fashion.

Let us look at another example. We are negotiating a new contract with a vendor that has proposed taking over our entire human resources function. There could be a substantial savings involved. But this is a big leap, and what if it does not work? How do we rebuild our HR operation? Would making a change force us to hire another outsource provider because re-starting our internal HR department would be too difficult?  

There is something to be said for embracing incremental change. I am not saying that taking the inch-by-inch approach is right for every situation. There is no doubt that there are situations where making a big, honkin’ impact is the right thing to do. But I know that too often I want everything at once in nearly every circumstance. And of course, this leads to mounting frustration when it does not happen to my liking. I have written before about patience – a gene that is absent for most entrepreneurs. Embracing incremental change is not all about patience, however.

Incremental change can be plain smart business. Take the example of the outsourcing of the HR function. Perhaps there would be a way to dip our toe in the water with the vendor. Maybe we outsource a portion of the HR function on a test basis and evaluate the results. If after sufficient time we feel comfortable, maybe we move another portion of the HR function (or even the rest of it). Maybe rather than grow at 50% per year we throttle back to 25% or 30%, and intentionally invest resources in building a solid infrastructure. Instead of rolling out an entirely new sales training program, we prioritize our weakest areas and develop training around them. The ultimate goal would be to implement a new sales training program, but over the course of 18 to 24 months.

As much as we want everything to happen right now, sometimes we are better served by making change inch-by-inch. We take what the market will give us. We take the gains that our team can generate. Sure, it is nice to score a touchdown with a 103-yard punt return in 11 seconds. But we score the same seven points when we grind out positive yards. Yes, sometimes we achieve a first down with just an inch or two to spare. If we are in it for the long haul, the incremental approach may even be more rewarding because our wins are not the result of a fluke or a lucky break. We know how to win.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.