Doing Good Incrementally

by Ira Chaleff

Executive Excellence – May 2000

Recently, a group of management consultants and writers got together to discuss how their work was helping companies and the world. Most felt very good about their ability to help the clients who retained them. But, alongside this feeling was a gnawing question: What if I’m helping my clients do better but the corporation they are part of is not behaving in a socially responsible way? Am I really helping the world to be a better place?

I suspect that this thinking parallels the experience of managers and executives in large companies. They know that they are doing their best to fulfill the expectations of their boards and shareholders and senior management. But, beyond the widgets they make, is all their hard work ultimately adding up to the world being better or worse off? To their communities being better or worse off? Or, in some cases, is it even adding up to their companies being better off in the long run versus the short run?

Most executives and managers are under such intense pressure to manage change, produce quarterly profits, remain strategically competitive and hold their personal lives together while doing all this, that they don’t have time to indulge in such philosophical questions. But somewhere in their consciousness these questions exist and sometimes they gnaw at their consciences.


There appears to be a dilemma. The few management thinkers who do raise questions about the sustainability of a system which demands constant growth and increased profitablity, regardless of the societal or environmental or health costs of such growth, seem to challenge the very fabric of our free enterprise, capitalist system. If we pay attention to them we begin to question the very system which is providing so many of us with materially abundant lives. This is too threatening to do. So the management thinkers seem doomed to be like Cassandra who was given the gift to see the coming crises but cursed with the inability to get others to treat the threats she saw seriously.

This only becomes a dilemma if we assume that we must overthrow or radically change the system in order to improve the situation. We know that this is a quixotic venture. It is unlikely we could ever radically change the system and, history teaches us that, even if we did, we would not necessarily wind up with a better system. Things could get a lot worse as they have done in many countries who tampered with the free enterprise system.

Thus we do nothing. And the warnings the Cassandras try to give us go unheeded, to our mutual peril. There is another approach. We can listen to the Cassandras and recognize that there is some truth in their warnings, without having to buy their exhortations to overthrow the system.


There are three levels of change that are always possible,with many points in between: radical change, significant progressive change and incremental conservative change. Radical change overthrows the whole power structure of a system and is only appropriate in rare, revolutionary situations such as existed when the Soviet Union collapsed, or the internet burst onto the scene.

Significant progressive change is typical of companies who are market leaders or aspire to market leadership. It includes such bold acts as the innovation of family friendly policies or smokestack scrubbers before they are commonplace.

Incremental conservative changes are possible and productive in any company or society that is holding its own. Examples might be reducing the amount of lead in gasoline or extending health care benefits to legally recognized domestic partners.. Such seemingly narrow changes can keep improving life without a large risk of unintended and counterproductive consequences.

The targets for improvement are only limited by our imagination. One of the most powerful tools a company has for improving its own workplace, the community, or even the world, is to get clarity on what it values and then figure out how to measure that. What you track, measure and reward is what you will get more of.

For example, if you run a successful fast food chain but are concerned about the long term impact of the amount of deep fried food on your customer’s health, clarify your values. Perhaps this would result in a statement such as: Our values are to be a market leader in profitably providing the kind of fast food our customers want while finding ways of successfully reducing the percentage of saturated fat they eat in our food. This might spawn a program to test incremental menu and promotional changes which serve this value. The measurable might be: reducing saturated fat consumed by customers from 50% to 40% of their purchases. The first region to successfully do this while retaining or increasing market share will receive a $100,000 bonus to be divided by area managers.


The key is, just as we are proactive about steps to improve customer satisfaction and the profitability of our business, we can be proactive about improving how our business or industry impacts our employees, our communities and the world. If we organize ourselves to be consistent about this, over time, incremental improvements add up to large, progressive improvements. Ironically, these may preempt the need for disruptive radical change or burdensome government regulation at some future point.

And we are more proud of what we are doing in the world.

The key to doing good is your commitment to doing good. As soon as you recognize that consistent, incremental change is within your power and is not threatening, you can organize the collective energy within your company that shares this value to collaborate with you. Together you can steadily, incrementally, build a better place for people to work, and a better community, environment and world in which to do that work.


© Ira Chaleff 2004