Heidi Burgess
Guy Burgess
Michelle Maiese

July 2004

What is the Incremental Approach?

"Some analysts describe incrementalism as muddling through, in contrast to the ideal of the rational-comprehensive model of policy planning. The rational model assumes a great deal of information, clarity of goals and criteria, and the ability to define and analyze all possible alternatives, rendering a single clear solution. The real world is not so obliging." Available online here.

One of the biggest problems in most intractable conflicts is that they are incredibly complex, with many actors, issues, interests, and a long history of confrontation, fear, distrust, even hate. As a result, it is almost impossible for one person or even one group of people to come in and, in a relatively short period of time, help the parties find a solution. Solutions need to be developed slowly over a long time period, with many people working independently and in concert, to bring about a transformation of the conflict from a destructive one to a constructive one, and eventually to a resolved situation.

One of the fundamental assumptions of the constructive confrontation approach to intractable conflicts (developed by Guy and Heidi Burgess) is that even when the overall conflict cannot be resolved, incremental improvements to the situation can often be made. These incremental steps will benefit small parts of the conflict system immediately, and eventually can work together to facilitate the transformation of the wider conflict.

This point is widely recognized in terms of negotiation strategy. Many conflict professionals recognize the importance of separating negotiable from non-negotiable issues and resolving as many of the negotiable issues as possible. But the incremental approach can also be used in force-based and integrative strategies, as well as strategies to limit the complicating factors such as communication problems, procedural problems, fact-finding problems, or escalation.

For example, disputes about facts or procedures can present serious difficulties that prevent negotiations about more substantive issues from getting off the ground. While improved procedures or fact-finding efforts are unlikely to resolve the conflict completely, they are incremental steps that have benefits themselves (for instance, better understanding of the situation and/or a procedure that is more likely to be considered fair). If enough incremental improvements can be made, that eventually allows the conflict to become "ripe" for successful negotiation. Even if ripeness cannot be achieved, the character of the conflict can be changed substantially.

For example, the Public Conversations Project facilitated a dialogue between pro-life and pro-choice abortion leaders for six years in Boston. At the end of that process, the people involved went public in an article in the Boston Globe. There they reported that they had learned to respect and even like each other as people, even though on the topic of abortion they remained as polarized as ever. Nevertheless, they had learned through this dialogue what they could and could not say to and about the other side, if they wanted to keep the relationship between themselves constructive (which they did). They agreed from the beginning that they wanted to transform the debate in Boston from its very destructive, violent beginning (the dialogue started after an abortion provider was shot and killed and leaders on both sides of the conflict realized that there had to be a better way to make one's point.)

Laura Chasin describes a high-profile dialogue on abortion that taught both the parties and the facilitators a lot.


Why Adopt an Incremental Approach?

The incremental approach often offers the best way to reduce the destructiveness of confrontations over intractable issues. This approach begins by identifying any conflict problems that increase the conflict's overall destructiveness or threaten the parties' ability to make wise decisions or advance their interests. Parties are then provided with information about options for dealing with each problem. While it is usually impossible to correct all problems, the goal is to help people fix as many of the problems as possible. This often serves to reduce the magnitude of problems that cannot be eliminated.

Although many incremental "treatments" require the cooperative efforts of contending parties, others can be implemented unilaterally. Similarly, while some treatments are relatively easy to implement, others require that the parties develop new dispute-handling skills or secure the assistance of outside professionals. Unlike other forms of dispute resolution, the incremental approach can work in situations where resolution-based approaches are unworkable. It also makes sense in cases where it is unrealistic to expect major changes in dispute-handling process or decision-making institutions.

The incremental approach also recognizes our limited ability to understand and solve complex problems. It also recognizes that certain kinds of long-term change are best sustained through gradual adjustments rather than complete overhaul. Small or incremental moves are often more effective than trying to resolve the whole conflict all at once. In part this is because solutions that address isolated aspects of the conflict are typically far less controversial than comprehensive peace agreements. But it is also because the incremental approach is inherently cautious, which may impart a sense of ease among the disputing parties. Because trust is often low, parties often need to take small steps to create initial trust and establish a positive atmosphere in which subsequent vital issues may be broached. In addition, attempting to deal with difficult issues in smaller pieces can help to make conflict more manageable and thereby stop it from escalating.

What Does the Incremental Approach Look Like?

The incremental approach recommends that parties analyze the full scope of conflict, identify those conflict problems that are having the most severe adverse effects, and develop small-scale interventions designed to limit those specific problems. In some cases this will involve a negotiated resolution of some of the sub-issues before moving on to the more substantive issues in contention. In other cases, it will involve a unilateral change in behavior.

In order to deal with complex conflicts, parties must think about the best way to order or sequence the issues in a particular dialogue or resolution process. The "gradualism method" is a strategy whereby the intermediary attempts to move the parties from simpler issues to more complex ones. The tactic of "fractionalization," or breaking down big issues into smaller components, is often employed. Issues can be fractioned by reducing the number of parties involved in the negotiations, limiting the immediate issues being considered, or limiting the issues of principle being considered. Once agreements are reached on more limited items, parties can attempt to deal with additional issues. As mediator Bernard Mayer explains, "The art of fractionalization is to divide a conflict into manageable chunks that are neither too small nor too large and that do not isolate any major issue in a way that makes creative problem-solving more difficult." [1]


"The parties at the table are being asked to take small steps to build trust as they move toward the end goal of a two state system with a satisfactory solution to the issues of Jerusalem, the Israeli Settlements, and the Palestinian Right of Return. These issues have been left to the end of every process to date and that has gotten the parties-well, a lot of bloodshed. The reality is that as small steps are taken and trust is tentatively built, spoilers -those who do not want a peace process to transpire-have ample opportunity to reverse any such progress." - From Incrementaled to Death: Peacemaking in the Middle East

Associated Dangers

Some scholars point to a danger associated with focusing on incremental adjustments rather than "systemic overhaul." The danger is that any solutions reached will involve only relatively insignificant changes for the existing conflict situation and that these changes will be made "only at the margin." Radical innovations may be lost if parties are overly cautious in their attempts to come to an agreement.

For example, some suggest that the incremental approach may actually have created problems for the peacemaking process in the Middle East:

In some cases, it may be necessary to make genuine progress with respect to core problems rather than "fractioning" or sequencing issues to deal with more manageable ones first. This sort of visible progress may sometimes be the best way to build trust between negotiators and stave off the destructive influence of spoilers. Of course, because it focuses on core conflict issues at the outset, this sort of strategy can be very risky. But in cases where there is constant death, loss of optimism, and a lack of innovative approaches, it may very well take a dramatic and jolting act to alter a conflict's course permanently. []

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi, Guy Burgess and Michelle Maiese. "Incrementalism." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2004 <>.

Additional Resources