Making real progress in a fast-paced world

Dec 18, 2019 |Posted by Jared Simmons | Coaching
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Why are we so sure that going faster, working more, and adding people will increase our progress? As managers, we often behave as though we are certain that we are headed in the right direction–approaching a fixed point and always completely aware of where it is and where we are.

The reality is that the world is dynamic. What was the right direction last quarter may be taking you further from your goal today–not because you changed, but because the world around you has shifted.

Leading effectively in today’s world doesn’t mean pushing pace, but clearly defining–and, when necessary, redefining–progress.

Progress is movement toward a destination or outcome.

Pace is a rate of movement.

Action is simply doing something.

Now, let’s examine these three concepts in the light of how we typically lead, manage, and work. In this example, we’ll see how easy it is to mistake the amount of activity as a measure of the pace of progress.

Progress, activity and pace in action

A leader sets a goal for a team. He gives the manager a deadline and what he believes are sufficient resources to accomplish the task. The manager allocates these resources to a working team, who then determines the best set of actions to take to accomplish the goal by the deadline. The team goes away to work.

The manager gets nervous about the team’s ability to deliver on time, so she asks what they are doing. The team responds with a list of actions. The manager is satisfied. Flawed logic: Activity = Pace

The leader wants an update, so the manager lists the actions on a timeline relative to the deadline. Everything fits. The leader is satisfied. Flawed logic: Pace = Progress

Halfway through the project timeline, a competitive product is launched. It has the same features but costs much less than the one the team is still working on. We are behind. We need to make more progress.

The leader tells the manager to shorten the timeline and slash product cost. He’s asked for more pace to get more progress.

The manager then asks the team to get more things done in less time. She’s asked for more activity to get more progress.

The team then works more hours with fewer resources on a tighter timeline to make more progress. Mistakes are made, rework increases, and even the original launch date is missed.

Sound familiar?

Why it matters

When you haven’t been focused on progress, external shocks simply make you run faster in the wrong direction–leaving you winded and less confident when the next race starts. Defining progress means understanding what success looks like in terms that matter to the business–profit, market share, corporate reputation. These things rarely correlate to doing the most things or going as fast as possible in any direction. Knowledge work requires a constant focus on real progress toward solving the problem at hand.

How do you ensure that your team is moving in the right direction? Do you ask for activity or pace when you’re really looking for progress?

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Jared Simmons

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