Here's the problem with gradual: It's chronic, insidious, and subtle. The newspapers report that more than half of all Americans are overweight. I can tell you how we got that way: one french fry at a time. We didn't foul the Love Canal in a week. That took a generation of dumping chemicals. Your company didn't hire 30 or 100 or 1,000 noncontributing employees all at once. That took years.
The problem with gradual is that we don't notice the damage until the damage is extreme. People have no trouble opening their hearts and their wallets to hurricane victims, but we often don't take the time to help a community that's slowly sinking into despair. No company sets out to be average, but far too many let themselves end up that way. No plant manager decides to turn her plant into a dirty, unsafe, inefficient facility, but it happens — gradually. Day by day, bit by bit, we get stuck.
And what happens when we finally realize that the problems we face are bad enough that they need fixing? Panic sets in. We rush around, ready to spend money. We put all of our efforts into finding the quick fix. Consultants charge Fortune 500 companies huge fees, describing how they can undo 30 or 40 years of bad planning with a single reorganization.
Here's the point of gradual: You don't win an Olympic gold medal with a few weeks of intensive training. There's no such thing as an overnight opera sensation. Great law firms or design companies don't spring up overnight, like rock supergroups that decide to get together one weekend.
Every great company, every great brand, and every great career has been built in exactly the same way: bit by bit, step by step, little by little. Managers who are both smart and patient can take the same inexorable downward force that drives some companies to mediocrity and turn it on its head.
If every element of an organization gets a little better every day, then that organization will become unstoppable. An organization that builds that kind of momentum will soon evolve into a market leader. Yet our impatience negates the simplicity of that statement. Amazingly, it was the Three Stooges who first codified this management technique: "Slowly I turned . . . step by step . . . inch by inch . . ." It worked for them, and it can work for us. We're not going to fix our economy — or our miserable negative attitude — with a federally mandated intervention in time for the next election. You're not going to build a great company because of a neat idea that you got in the shower one day. You're not going to find that perfect job just because your ré sumé ends up on the right desk on the right day.
We need to stop shopping for lightning bolts. The way out of our paralysis is simpler than that: It's about thinking small and thinking gradual.
No, I haven't gone over to the side of the slow-moving reactionaries. I'm not proposing anything that isn't scary, or risky, or painful. I'm just saying that you should consider using the few opportunities that you have to invest in those things that are worth it: things that represent big change but that are achieved over time. Here's the danger of gradual: It shouldn't be used as an excuse for doing nothing at all.
Venture capitalists who are in a rut should stop talking about how hard it is to raise a $100 million fund. Instead, raise a $5 million fund. They should also stop trying to invest $5 million at a time (with an 18-month window before going public). A better strategy is to start doing smaller investments with longer time horizons. Just like chili, low and slow is the way to maximum flavor.
At the same time that so many people whine about their current straits while looking for a guaranteed home run, a few smart folks are quietly placing their bets, making small investments of time and money and giving them a chance to grow. The truth is, gradual change is challenging and hard: challenging, because the people around you are demanding something great right now, and hard, because gradual requires the faith to know that your hard work is worth the investment. We shouldn't be surprised that the Atkins diet is so popular. It's not gradual, and it doesn't build a lifetime foundation of good health. In other words, it's the American way.
The new fast company isn't fast at all. It's gradual, slow, measured, and organized. It's making small bets. Which, it turns out, is the fastest way of all to get back to where you want to be.
Seth Godin is a Fast Company contributing editor. His latest book, Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable, is being published this month by Portfolio.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.