Pros and Cons of Incremental Change vs. the “Big Bang” Approach

How does incremental change in business stack up against the “big bang” approach?

When implementing new business projects, in other words, is it better to roll those projects out all at once or incrementally, one phase at a time?

Each approach has its pros and cons and both are feasible – but depending on the circumstances, one approach is often superior to the other.

In this article, we’ll compare both styles of project implementation and look at the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The Difference Between Incremental Change vs. the “Big Bang” Approach

Incremental change and all-at-once “big bang” changes can refer to a wide variety of business endeavors, including:

In each of these scenarios, managers have a choice of how to move the project forward.

Incremental change gradually applies the change gradually, one step at a time. If an organization chooses to adopt a new workplace protocol incrementally, for instance, then new rules and guidelines would be implemented slowly over a period of time.

The “big bang” approach, on the other hand, applies those changes all at once. A software rollout that takes this approach, for instance, would require the entire target user base to shift over to the new software overnight, without leaving much time for testing or adjustment.

Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, as we’ll see below.

Pros and Cons of Each Style

Each approach is viable in most types of business projects and neither is superior to the other.

Instead, each approach has its own benefits and drawbacks, which make each approach suitable in a different sent of circumstances.

An incremental or phased approach to change, for instance:

  • Allows more time for data collection. Since incremental changes are deployed over a period of time, change managers can track the performance of the program and learn which issues need addressed. They can then make adjustments early on, before the program has completed.
  • Gives employees more time to adjust. Not only must employees unlearn old skills and relearn new ones, they must often adapt to a new workplace environment. Many changes, after all, can affect team dynamics, the work atmosphere, the organization’s culture, and so forth. Changes such as these usually have an emotional impact on employees, so it is a good idea to ease that transition as much as possible.
  • Takes longer. Incremental changes do have their benefits, but they also take longer. When speed is a necessity, phased rollouts may not be viable for the business. In such situations, it is important to have an organization and a workforce that is adaptable, agile, and change-ready.

Rolling out new changes all at once, however:

  • Shortens the timelines of projects. Rolling out a project all at once reduces the time it takes to complete a project. If an organization adopts a new software program all at once, for example, the old software is quickly abandoned and there is no transition period.
  • Reduces employees’ time-to-competency. One issue with incremental change is that employees can more easily retain old habits and workflows. And that attachment, in turn, can make it more difficult and time-consuming for employees to adopt new software.
  • Can result in more friction and complications. All-at-once changes can be jarring if they are not handled correctly or if the change is too large. Such a rapid shift can create skill gaps, resistance from employees, and it can even undermine the project’s goals.

As change managers well know, employees are the heart of any change initiative.

To successfully drive a change program forward, employees must be engaged and motivated. At the same time, they must also have the right skills for the job, and becoming productive requires training and practice.

The bigger the change, the more employees must learn and adapt, which is why a phased approach is often more suitable for large-scale projects.

How to Decide Which Approach Is Best

Below are a few factors to consider when choosing between an incremental approach to change and a rapid transition:

  • The scale of the project. Larger projects, as mentioned, require more adjustments and they have a larger impact on the workforce. For that reason, phased rollouts are often better for large-scale programs.
  • The skills gap. Certain types of business projects, such as those involving product adoption, may require extensive employee training. If the skills gap is too large, then an incremental approach to deployment and training would probably be the best choice.
  • The impact on the workplace and employees. Certain projects may require very little employee training, while still having a large effect on workers. A merger or acquisition, for instance, could result in a changed organizational culture, which would affect the company’s existing beliefs, values, and behaviors. In other words, the workforce could easily be impacted emotionally, even if their job roles remain the same.

Having the right approach can make a significant difference in the efficiency and the outcomes of a project, especially when that approach is accompanied by effective change management.

Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.