The project manager strides aggressively through the workplace. He has a plan to overhaul this business, a radical transformation that will see everything improve. There will disruption, there will be resentment, there will be uncertainty. But ultimately a better way of working will arise form tearing down the old.

This is the image business improvement has gained over the past twenty years. Focusing on big changes, big projects, huge transformations. But as Sir Dave Brailsford has demonstrated in transforming British cycling, vast improvements can be achieved without large projects and the upheaval they bring. A steady stream of marginal improvements can build into big results.

How does this work, and how can you apply it?

Thinking About Thinking

Many inefficiencies come out of bad habits, and once you understand the way the brain works it’s easy to understand why. If a way of working in successful a few times, then the chemical reward your brain originally gave you for succeeding will now become associated with that way of working. You’ll feel good about that process. You’ll fall into a habit, and keeping repeating it whether it’s working or not. It feels like success.

Changing big habits is hard. The emotional rewards of stability are far larger, and so are the risks of change.

It’s much easier to start change with the small things, where people won’t lose out on much mental buzz from breaking the old habit. A new way of working will quickly develop its own rewards. The improvement will stick.

The Business as a Brain

In many ways, businesses work like brains. Repetition of behavior creates pathways, though through business processes and work arounds rather than synaptic connections. These paths of least resistance become the way the business works, the way it thinks. Whether it’s that staples should be ordered on a Tuesday, or that we always spend more each year on marketing, following familiar paths takes less effort. There’s less mental cost to doing the familiar.

Also like the human brain, a business can be re-trained. Start with small changes that bring you closer to your big goals. Let them become familiar, turning into new paths of least resistance. The cost of working in a different way, the extra effort involved and resistance created, will be low. Then once that improvement is embedded, move onto the next step.

Change as a Habit

Improvement itself can become a habit, as long as it’s done through small gains.

If change only comes in the form of large, occasional projects then no-one but the project managers gets to build a lasting mental buzz, a sense of satisfaction from shifting brain chemistry, out of improvement. The project happens, the change is done, and you settle into a new pattern of business as usual. The mental rewards are associated with a particular pattern of work, rather than working in whatever is the best way.

By encouraging people to make a steady series of small improvements, you foster improvement as a habit. Colleagues will start to associate a sense of satisfaction with making changes. They will actively look for improvements. When they come to change a working habit, the mental reward for improvement will immediately overcome the loss of satisfaction associated with the old habit.

Changing the Business Brain

The same principle applies to the business. By carrying out a stream of small improvements with visible results, you will wear away the points of resistance, whether in processes or attitudes. It will become easier to implement change, and eventually to bring in the larger, more transformative changes that are sometimes needed.

For both employees and your business, small, habitual improvement can foster a culture of improvement.