Logical Incrementalism

By Fatmanur Erdogan, Hurriyet Daily News (click here for newspaper’s online edition, Logical Incrementalism)
Entrepreneurship isn’t just for the young. You can start a business at any age. Yet many older adults struggle to overcome a major obstacle – which is that they know too much. When “knowing too much” means accurately understanding the nuances of a market, it’s a good thing. But when “knowing too much” means knowing too much of the wrong thing, or accepting a conventional wisdom that’s sometimes wrong, it gets in the way.

Take the conventional wisdom that in order to be successful, a business needs to execute a well-planned, long-term strategy. After a few years having that drilled into their heads, people stop questioning the idea. They figure it must be a law of nature, and over time they get used to a rigid, carefully-planned corporate culture. Anything else is considered foolish and irresponsible. Eventually, after years of living and breathing this dogma, people have a hard time imagining a world where the details are unknown, and where the eagerness to experiment is high.

What they forget is that minute planning and preparation is not a necessary part of all human organizations. In fact, when we are young, we are more comfortable with a relatively unplanned, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style of living and working. When we are young, “spontaneous” is not such a bad word.

Recently I ran across an interesting Harvard University article about IKEA. IKEA is a successful company, right? They’re a household name all over the world, they’re a well-respected organization, and they make lots of money. This Harvard article pointed out that IKEA acts very differently, not at all like the more conventional companies that are obsessed with executing a well-planned, long-term strategy. The article called IKEA’s method “logical incrementalism.”

Simply put, logical incrementalism says you don’t always have to plan everything. You can follow your instincts, and base your actions on the circumstances immediately surrounding you. Logical incrementalism is about achieving an organization’s goals by making smaller decisions and taking smaller steps, as opposed to the complex approach and bigger leaps of long-term strategic planning.

It turns out that IKEA has been using logical incrementalism since its very first store opened for business. IKEA’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, had a strong but very general vision. From that, IKEA’s strategy gradually took shape as Kamprad both proactively took action and reactively adapted to the situation as it unfolded. Even the decision to sell furniture was an adaptation to the market, not a deliberate strategy.

Because of this “short-term agnosticism,” whenever the company stumbled across an obstacle, it could quickly turn the obstacle into an opportunity. In a business world that preaches the virtues of seeing into the future everyday, strategizing well and sticking to plans, I find IKEA’s approach incredibly refreshing. It reminds us that a business can succeed without predicting the future and wasting time writing thick strategy roadmaps that are obsolete before they even leave the printing press.

It’s important to keep in mind that logical incrementalism does not mean changing course whenever the wind shifts. Perhaps even more so than the minutely-planned organization, organizations that use logical incrementalism rely on having a unified, strong, and clear vision. Everyone in the company needs to know where the ship is ultimately headed, even if its short-term direction is unclear. If some of your people are confused, your entire organization will flail.

All too many corporate professionals have bought into the myth that the only way to succeed is to set complicated strategies and plan for every contingency. Those people need to be reminded that that is not the only way to do it right. Large, well-known and highly-envied companies like IKEA have shown there is another way. And if there are successful companies that prove the conventional wisdom can be wrong, perhaps we should stop allowing it to create the fear that holds us back from our entrepreneurial dreams.

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