Making progress through continuous improvement and step changes

“Go to bed smarter than when you woke up.” ~ Charlie Munger

This quote by Charlie Munger embodies one of the principles I try to follow in life, which is to get a little better everyday. Progress is vital in any aspect of your life be it professional or personal. Some times progress is made through continuous improvements and other times by adopting radical step changes. The journey of continuous improvement is like a marathon and radical step changes are like 100m sprints.

One thing I have come to realise is that life is a long marathon interspersed with many short sprints. It pays to be aware of which method to use to make progress in any aspect of life. But first let’s try to understand what works for and against each of these methods.

Continuous improvement is unsexy

Simply because there is little to show immediately for the effort whereas step change gives you the bragging rights. There are no pivotal moments or momentum shifting events when it comes to continuous improvement. Step changes gives you a pivotal BC/AD…the time before the change and after the change. It makes it easier to anchor your conversations around the event.

Sprint vs Marathon

Continuous improvement is all about the daily grind. You have to summon the energy to do things every day even when the results don’t tell the story. A step change is more like a rallying cry for the leader to pull his team around and lead the charge. It’s like a sprint where you have to spend your energy in a short bust.


Continuous improvement works like mini loops or cycles where you make a change, observe the feedback and slowly progress to the next loop. This makes it difficult to make any large direction change whereas step changes by nature are suitable for making quick direction changes. Because of this with step changes you get the agility and flexibility to explore more opportunities.

Silent Compounding vs Radical Innovation

Continuous improvement is like compounding. It happens silently in the background. No one notices it daily. Step changes however are different. They stir things up. People take notice. Books and case studies are written about it and business legends are created.

Choosing between Continuous Improvement and Step Change

When you have a long term horizon continuous improvement is a better method as the benefits compound over a period of time without disrupting. Step changes are a bit disruptive, so whenever you adopt a step change in one aspect of your life more often than not some other thing breaks or suffers. So for long term horizon things like health, relationships, learning etc a continuous improvement strategy helps.

Instead of deciding to wake up at 5AM, hit the gym 7 days and go on a diet in one go to loose 8kgs in 8 weeks. Expand your time horizon, think of it as a lifelong marathon and not an 8 week sprint. If you wake up at 8, may be start waking up an hour early first. If you haven’t set foot in a gym ever, may be start going on alternate days first. Instead of going in to a calorie deficit diet from Day 1, may be reduce the portions and avoid soft drinks first. This way while you are trying to get healthy the other aspects of your life like work, relationships etc can go on smoothly instead of being sapped out of energy by putting it all on getting healthy.

Step changes can be useful in getting things accomplished where the time horizon is short. Want to set up a new home office or tidy up your room? Want to clean up your code base or hire a new team, in such cases step changes help so that the real work can start.

Tips & Tricks

Here are some tips and tricks before we wind this down

  • If you need to radically improve an aspect of your life, start with a step change upfront
  • Follow a step change with a calm period. This allows you to get used to the new normal
  • Run multiple experiments before committing to a new direction and then aim to become a little better everyday
  • Monitor progress daily and avoid the temptation of churning things up every day