Incrementalism: a Method of Pure Evil

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(For someone with OCD)

When I got my first job in the tech industry I was made a partner pretty quickly1 as I had run small a web design business since I was a teenager. That aside, I was quickly thrust—for the first time—into a non-labor job that involved other people above me and below me. Specifically what comes into play here was the person above me-a micromanaging President of the company. We got along well, I get along well with everyone I work with—I value diplomacy above confrontation at all times. Even if I hate the person2.

I very quickly learned the concept of “incrementalism.” It is rather simple, and when pervasive—rather evil to someone with OCD like myself. Incrementalism boils down to the concept of first asking for a task to be done. That task may have amorphous or very detailed specifications, all is good there. At least for me—I can work off any level of specification and fill in the blanks very easily at work.

So we have that, and I’m wont to complete said task well before deadlines are even discussed. I move quickly, as well I do good work. I provide—at the very least—results to specification.

Then changes.

Now, changes are not bad on the surface and to be expected. We live in a liquid world, especially in high technology. Things iterate on the fly, and I work well within that. However, this is a different method of making changes. And it becomes pure evil and all the synonyms for the word “evil.”

Incrementalism is when changes to work happen in a stair-step manner working upwards in complexity with no regard for all of the good things that come from quick, keeping-it-simple, solid and organized work (which you can imagine, especially on the “organized” part, I’m pretty hard-core on). It is not a list of changes… it is a set of changes that beget other changes on top of that which beget other changes on top of that which… keep going. And each usually more complex than the changes before it.

Taking it beyond work projects, incrementalism is a situation where once the door is open to change, any change is acceptable and expected. A one-way cracking of the dam. It often starts out small and slow and increases in frequency and size. It is a situation where once simple changes are seen as allowed, all changes are—without consideration of all parties’ concerns—now allowed.

In daily life incrementalism also takes form in the construct of responsibility. As I’ve always said: once you wash the dishes three times in a row, you’re going to wash the dishes from then on out as your job.

Incrementalism’s roots are in increments of… things. Once one is ok, then two is ok. Once two is ok, five is ok. These numbers here are placeholders for any modular life item or items.

A simple play on incrementalism:
1. Can you ________?
2. _______ is now done.
3. Can you ________ and ________?
4. ________ and ________ are now done.
5. Can you ________ and ________ and ________?
6. (…)

In this logical pseudo-diagram, items five and one are considered by the asking party as the same size and acceptability. Number six, well that shows how this scourge can seemingly never end. Acceptability is inferred by number two above.


Ok, maybe that is a bit strong. They are probably often good people. Their actions though follow towards a circumstance of infinity, which is quite impossible. That which is asked of the other party is never-ending, and often a situation where change for change’s sake becomes a thing. And that is evil.

The problem often lies in tools. Usually tools of communication. The further away from real-life communication, these communication tools are, the more prevalent incrementalism becomes. Because it is the tool—often digital nowadays—that presupposes that all requests are acceptable, because they are no longer tied to the inherent containment of real-life communication, but rather open to infinite one-way communication.

Don’t get me wrong, I rely on these tools for my life. I am consumed with digital communication because I very much dislike person-to-person communication. But I always check myself to make sure I am not abusing the one-way nature of said communication tools and laying down growing increments of “need” that then—as is wont to happen in the world of incrementalism—becomes less “need” and more “want” and then more “requests for requests’ sake.”

There you have it and don’t do it.


I am off now to complete ________ and ________ and ________, and then… well I suppose we’ll see what is in store for me.


1 This was during the dot-com boom and bust. I have no money from me if that’s what you’re wondering.  [BACK]

2 Ok, we’re getting off track here. Which is even worse than I am putting this in a footnote. Ok, focus!  [BACK]