The Incremental Model of Decision Making: What You Need to Know

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Is it hard to get people to make the big decisions? I know what it’s like: analysis paralysis kicks in, and the responsibilities of making a big call can weigh heavy on stakeholders… so they procrastinate, and you don’t get any answer at all.

There is a decision-making approach that takes some of the weightiness out of deciding what to do. How much easier would it be to solve a problem a piece at a time instead of having to leap to the end straightaway?

That’s what incremental decision making can do for you. Let me tell you:

  • What it’s all about and why it’s great
  • How you can use it
  • When it’s most appropriate
  • What to look out for when using it.

Looking for a guide on project decision making? I have a process to follow for straightforward project decisions.

What is the incremental model of decision making?

The incremental model of decision making is a process used to make decisions in a step-by-step manner.

Just what the name says!

It’s like agile project management for decision making: taking small steps towards a larger goal.

This type of decision making is often used when there is a large amount of information that needs to be assimilated, compiled, or assessed. It’s also good for when the decision needs to be made in a short amount of time because it’s efficient.

The incremental decision making approach is often used in government settings, such as defining public policy. It can help to ensure that all options have been considered and that the final decision is made in the best interest of the public. Policy decisions rely on a range of economic factors and sometimes canvassing public opinion, so choosing the right way to implement change is important.

It’s also used in business settings, as it allows for a more thorough analysis of the situation and allows for more input from different stakeholders. It enables a company to make changes little by little, rather than all at once.

As decision making models go, it’s a good choice for complex decisions that require a lot of information to be processed.

How to make incremental decisions

There is no one size fits all approach. Every situation is different, and each decision maker has their own way of approaching things.

That being said, the incremental model lends itself to almost any situation.

Here’s how it works. It’s basically a process where small, incremental decisions are made that lead to a larger goal.

1. Identify the goal

The first step in using the incremental model of decision making is to identify the goal that you are trying to achieve.

Once the problem has been identified, the next step is to gather information about the problem.

This information can be gathered from a variety of sources, including research, interviews, and surveys. After the information has been gathered, it is then analyzed to determine the best course of action for the next increment – the next logical step that can be taken at this point.

2. Identify the increments to achieve the goal

Next, break down the goal into smaller, more manageable pieces. That’s where we get to the ‘incremental’ part. Each piece is an increment towards the larger decision.

3. Make the decision about each increment in turn

Third, now you have your increments, as a team (or with whichever stakeholders should be involved) make a decision about each one. Consider the costs and benefits of each option or recommendation.

You also need to think about how each increment – or recommendation – will impact the goal. Take all the relevant factors into consideration, at least the ones you are aware of at this point.

4. Implement the decision

Once the analysis is complete, a decision is made, and a plan is put in place to implement the decision. Record the outcome on a project decision log.

The plan is then executed, and the results are evaluated. Just get it done!

Well done! You’re a step closer to that goal!

The incremental model of decision making is a great way to make small, manageable decisions that lead to a larger goal.

Key takeaway: The incremental model of decision making is a process that can be used to make small, incremental decisions that lead to a larger goal.

When to use incremental decision making

First, check your decision is best served by this model. The incremental approach to making decisions is used when there is a need for a decision to be made, but there is uncertainty about the best course of action.

There are other techniques for making group decisions.

This model can be used in many circumstances, and it can help you to make changes little by little, rather than all at once.

If the decision is straightforward, you can skip straight to the end. Just make the call. The table below shows some examples of what type of choice best fits this mode of working.

Suitable decisionsNot suitable decisions
How do I affect change by influencing policy?Who is going to do this task?
How do we meet the upcoming regulation changes?Shall I organize a meeting?
What actions are we going to take to influence organizational change?Can I approve this vacation time?
Is this project a good fit for our corporate strategy?What project management approach should we use for delivery?

This model is used to make a decision by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable steps.

This model is best used when the decision to be made is complex, and there is a need to involve different stakeholders in the decision-making process. The incremental model allows for a more systematic and collaborative approach to decision making.

Making smaller decisions along a journey to a bigger goal is a good choice when there is a need to make a decision quickly, and there is uncertainty about the best course of action overall.

Key takeaway: The incremental model of decision making is a good choice when there is a need to make a decision quickly and there is uncertainty about the best course of action.

Benefits of using the incremental model of decision making

Having a clear process for decision making is a factor of good governance because it adds transparency. Here are some more of the benefits of using the incremental model of decision making:

1. It helps reduce risk

When you use the incremental model, you take small steps instead of making huge leaps. This means that you’re less likely to make a decision that you’ll later regret.

It can help to reduce project risk. If something goes wrong, it is less likely to have a major impact on the business or project because you’re managing the change in an iterative way.

2. It allows you to change your mind

If you do find that the path you’re on is not the right one, for the project or the organization as a whole, it’s easier to back it out. We know that it’s easier to make changes early before there is too much to retrofit, or too much sunk cost.

If you make a decision using the incremental model, you can always change your mind later on. This is because you haven’t committed to anything in a big way.

3. It helps you gather more information

If you take small steps, you’ll have more time to gather information about your options. This can help you to make a more informed decision about the big picture.

Small steps show that you are making progress, and that might make it easier for others to engage with the project or change.

4. It can help cut costs

If you make a big decision all at once, you might waste money on something that you later realize you don’t want. But if you make smaller decisions, you can avoid this problem and properly cost out each step.

It’s also a way to manage opportunity costs: the cost of choosing one option over another. If you are trying to make a decision and there are several options, the opportunity cost of NOT taking one particular route might be substantive. Breaking down the decision and subsequent implementation activity can help you be confident that the approach being taken is correct.

5. It can help avoid team conflict

Bringing people along on the journey is easier if you are only asking them to commit to small things at a time. I learned about this in the book Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion by Goldstein, Martin, and Cialdini (which I recommend).

Ask for small commitments before you ask for larger ones (which is also one of the principles of gamification in project management).

As you can see, there are many benefits to using the incremental model of decision making.

Key Takeaway: The incremental model of decision making is a good way to manage risk, allow for people to change direction as new information comes to light, gather information, save money, and avoid conflict.

Challenges associated with incremental mode decision making

This way of choosing what to do has its advantages, but there are also some challenges and disadvantages associated with using it.

It’s time consuming

One challenge is that it can be time-consuming. This is because each decision must be made carefully and thoughtfully in order to avoid making any mistakes.

The steps might not lead where you expect

Another challenge is that this model can sometimes lead to sub-optimal decisions being made, as business leaders do not consider all of the options in full before making a decision – often because they can’t.

So you have to be prepared for the journey to not end up exactly where you predicted.

It looks like muddling through

Kleindorfer, Kunreuther, and Schoemaker make this point in the book Decision Sciences: An Integrative Perspective.

They write:

“Various writers have criticized the incremental nature of managerial decision making as though it were no more than ‘muddling through’. Another view, however, is that good managers do this because it is the only practical way to change policy in organizations.”

Despite the challenges, I still think that making decisions incrementally is good for where you are working on large-scale policy decisions, process, and culture change. If it is something that sounds right for you, I would recommend reading up on how best to introduce this way of working in your organization. There are loads of academic papers that could help you explain it in detail to your stakeholders.

When employed correctly, making decisions incrementally can help to improve project outcomes and reduce risks. It allows for more flexibility and adaptability as new information arises during the course of a project. It fits well with agile methodologies and organizational transformation, so perhaps it’s right for your next big decision?

What to read next: 5 Tips for decision making

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