There’s a misunderstanding across society that many major shifts in culture, business, politics and elsewhere occur without preliminary steps. But even when it feels most abrupt, large-scale change is often a culmination of marginal advancements.

In a past episode of Freakonomics Radio, host and journalist Stephen Dubner touched on this.

“Generally we are encouraged and trained, really, to look for big-bang successes, in all realms,” he said. However, “it strikes me that much progress if not most throughout history has really been a series of incremental gains.”

For a second opinion, Dubner went to American economist and Professor of Economics at Harvard University Edward Glaeser.

“Oh, I think almost surely that’s true,” Glaeser said. For instance, “if you think about the glory of the Italian Renaissance, it’s a piecemeal process,” a case of “each person incrementally improving on the last person.”

As Glaeser explains, it began with Brunelleschi’s linear perspective, making two-dimensional spaces seem three-dimensional. Donatello applied this to low-relief sculpture, Masaccio to painting, and following him Fra Filippo Lippi and Botticelli. Leonardo da Vinci didn’t change the world single-handedly, he “built on a century of incrementalists.”

Dubner and Glaeser point out that people have a, perhaps subconscious, fixation with big changes. We like to think Da Vinci’s ideas were founded on his own genius, so we ignore the power of incremental gains by others, the building of one thing atop another over time, that fueled his innovation.

Overlooking the power of incrementalism in the Italian Renaissance isn’t a big deal, it’s just a truth most people fail to recognize. However, overlooking this idea in something like mainframe development—where incrementalism is to Agile what big-bang changes are to waterfall—can lead us down some disadvantageous paths.

Why Do Mainframe Teams Fear Incrementalism?

In mainframe development, the power of using incremental gains by delivering smaller innovations more frequently through Agile development is often ignored or denounced in favor of older methodologies like waterfall.

Because the mainframe is the system of record, processing billions of transactions per day, many mainframe teams fear an incremental development methodology like Agile could endanger the quality of deliverables. That’s why some mainframe teams still deliver big changes with long release cycles instead of frequently releasing innovations that build on top of each other to become one cohesive set of utilities.

But doing what is seen as slow-and-safe development, as with waterfall, goes against the logic of today’s digital economy, which we already know demands a faster pace of commerce and leaves little room for the modern enterprise to indulge in protracted business processes. As more technologies of engagement access the mainframe each day, development teams are being pressured to increase release frequency by moving toward an incremental delivery process, as used by Agile.

There seem to be two major misunderstandings that keep some mainframe teams from becoming Agile.

For one, many mainframe teams misunderstand speed as the focus of Agile—it’s not. Incrementalism is the focus. With Agile, you don’t initially develop faster, although that happens naturally over time. The primary focus is to deliver innovation iteratively, more frequently, instead of letting development projects accumulate before releasing them as a lump sum months later.

Many teams also misunderstand quality as a byproduct of slower delivery—it’s not. How fast or slow you develop doesn’t automatically determine the level of quality. For example, with Agile, rather than waiting to test one mass collection of pieces at the end of a drawn-out development life cycle, you’re simultaneously developing and testing smaller pieces earlier in the process. Because they’re smaller pieces, they’re easier to test and easier to deliver sooner with the right level of quality.

This serves customers better because you’re getting them something sooner rather than making them wait for the advancements they need. To boot, delivering smaller pieces of functionality makes it easy to receive regular customer feedback, which helps drive continuous improvement of products and directly influences what functionality future deliverables include. Regular customer feedback enables you to deliver exactly what customers want.

Don’t Fear Change, Just Start

If mainframe shops are to keep pace with customer needs in a fast-paced digital economy, they must become Agile, develop in sprints, deliver at more frequent and regular intervals, and use incremental gains to build products that both suit customer needs in the moment and promise additional future functionality as needs arise.

While becoming Agile seems like a radical, sweeping shift for a mainframe company to make, it’s historically justified as a powerful method that generates more success because of its incremental framework, and, in the spirit of incrementalism, it’s something a mainframe shop works toward over time.

Given the fast-paced digital circumstances enterprises face today, what matters most for mainframe shops is that they start down the Agile road—incrementally, of course. In other words, don’t expect to become the Da Vinci of development in one fell swoop, but do continuously improve toward that goal. After all, the Italian Renaissance wasn’t a big-bang change—it spanned more than a century.