The tranquilizing drug of gradualism

In his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged a slow and steady pathway to civil rights reform.

Those in favor of an incremental approach feared that making waves–that being too confrontational–would backfire. It was seen as too risky a strategy.

MLK argued that patiently working against the wrongs endured by millions created the illusion of progress. He worried that by merely chipping away at injustice, we were lulled into a sense of advancement when very little was actually being accomplished. Gradualism was not only misguided, it was actually more risky. Ultimately, our delusions prevented us from making substantive change; the change that was so desperately needed. And still is.

These challenges are hardly unique to the struggle for social justice.

Many organizations say all the right things but do very little. Companies invest piles of money and countless hours in largely meaningless tweaks to their offerings. Simple product line extensions count for “innovation” at many brands. New executive titles are created–and organizations re-shuffled–to suggest that something important is happening. Yet that something is typically more of the same under a different guise.

All too often we become intoxicated by our words at the expense of our actions.

Continuous improvement fighting fundamental disruption or intractable systemic malaise just doesn’t cut it.

A frenzy of activity (supported by cool PowerPoint decks and/or lots of impassioned speeches) may make us feel good, but until it ships it doesn’t count.

And unless we can rise above the clutter, the noise, the rhetoric–if our work doesn’t make waves–well, we might as well not bother in the first place.

A version of this post originally appeared on my business blog at http://www.stevenpdennis.com

Author: stevenpdennis

Steve Dennis is a strategic advisor and thought-leader on retail innovation, marketing and growth strategy. He has served as the chief strategy officer and led the development of omni/multichannel integration efforts as a member of the executive committee of two Fortune 500 retailers. He was recently named one of retail's top 20 influencers and is a retail contributor for Forbes. As President of SageBerry Consulting he helps retail, consumer and social impact brands accelerate their growth and improve their customer focus and results. Prior to founding SageBerry, Steve was Senior Vice President, Strategy & Multichannel Marketing for the Neiman Marcus Group where he drove major strategic initiatives and led the company’s multichannel integration, loyalty marketing and customer insight strategy. As a speaker, Steve delivers keynotes, leads workshops and moderates expert panels on how retailers and brands can reinvent themselves to thrive during an age of digital disruption. Steve’s blog at www.stevenpdennis.com is one of the retail industry’s most followed and his thoughts on the future of retail have been featured at Bloomberg/Business Week, CNBC, Fortune, the Harvard Business Review, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and many other media channels. Steve is a member of several for-profit and non-profit Board of Directors and Advisory Boards. In the social impact sector, he is a long-term partner/Board member with Social Venture Partners Dallas and its immediate past Board Chair. Steve is also actively engaged as a Mentor and Advisor to the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas’ GroundFloor Social Innovation Accelerator. He has worked with numerous non-profits and social enterprises to amplify their impact, including Education Opens Doors, the Akola Project, Bonton Farms, Children@Risk and Leadership ISD. Steve received his MBA from Harvard and a BA from Tufts University.

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