Sometimes we work hard to achieve a goal, but measurable progress remains elusive. We sense movement, but we aren't making progress. It can happen in any organizational effort — projects, new product development, research, process improvement, organizational change — anything. And it can happen in Life — career advancement, weight loss, pursuing a dream.
When this happens, what can we do? Here are seven popular ways to get nowhere and what can be done about them.
- Irrelevant effort
- The work itself isn't relevant to progress. Perhaps it's progress-neutral, or it might be progress in a direction unimportant right now (or ever).
- Review what you're doing. Exactly how does it move you towards the goal?
- Self-canceling effort
- The work underway might have both positive and negative effects that cancel each other out. An example: digging a hole but failing to throw the extracted dirt out of the hole.
- Are you doing anything that erodes the value of the overall effort?
- Misleading measurement
- The method of measuring progress might be faulty. It registers no progress, but progress is actually real.
- How do you measure progress? Why do you believe that there's a connection between progress and whatever you measure?
- Running in circles
- Even though each bit of effort moves you forward, you eventually revisit wherever you are. A form even more difficult to detect is like Brownian motion — you rarely (or never) revisit any one spot but the average position doesn't change.
- What's the evidence that the work underway actually produces steady advancement?
- Missing pieces
- The work requires Unity of purpose requires
memos and orations alone
cannot achieve it.infrastructure that you don't yet have in place. Consequently, the progress you do make is periodically erased. Bailing out a leaky rowboat without first addressing the leaks is a good example.
- Is there anything you could have done earlier that would have made what you're doing now any easier? Is it too late to go back and do it?
- Someone or some people are actively working against progress — political foes, disgruntled team members, or even yourself. Maybe you're aware of this, or perhaps some of it is outside your awareness, becoming visible only episodically.
- Have you talked with those involved in this conflict? If not, what would happen if you brought the issue into the open? Could it possibly be worse than what's happening now?
- Disunity of purpose
- Here the different elements of the group (or the different parts of your Self) are all working steadily and making good progress, but they do so in different directions with different goals in mind. In some situations, this disunity becomes clear only after a revealing incident.
- Unity of purpose requires investment. Announcements, memos, and orations alone cannot achieve it. Unity of purpose follows only from extensive mutual communication.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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