Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The title is a bit misleading so it could be concise. A more precise one would be “Progress is mostly incremental; then progress can be (often serendipitously) massive” Without accepting incremental progress as the usual, typical outcome, the massive leap forward is impossible. If incremental progress is not sought as the natural outcome of working with excellence, progress dies completely. The gist of my argument is that attitude and orientation is the key to making things better. Innovation and improvement are the result of having the right attitude and orientation rather than having a plan for it. You cannot schedule breakthroughs, but you can create an environment and work with an attitude that makes it possible, if not likely. The maddening thing about breakthroughs is their seemingly random nature, you cannot plan for them they just happen, and most of the time they don’t.
For me, the most important aspect of the work environment is the orientation toward excellence and progress. Is work focused on being “the best” or the best we can be? Are we trying to produce “state of the art” results, or are we trying to push the state of the art further? What is the attitude and approach to critique and peer review? What is the attitude toward learning, and adaptively seeking new connections between ideas? How open is the work to accepting, even embracing, serendipitous results? Is the work oriented toward building deep sustainable careers where “world class” expertise is a goal and resources are extended to achieve this end?
Increasingly when I honestly confront all these questions, the answers are troubling. There seems to be the attitude that all of this can be managed, but control of progress is largely an illusion. Usually the answers are significantly oriented away from those that would signify these values. Too often the answers are close to the complete opposite of the “right” ones. What we see is a broad aegis of accountability used to bludgeon the children of progress to death in their proverbial cribs. If accountability isn’t enough to kill progress, compliance is wheeled out as progress’ murder weapon. Used in combination we see advances slow to a crawl, and expertise fail to form where talent and potential was vast. The tragedy of our current system is lost futures first among human’s whose potential greatness is squandered, and secondly in the progress and immense knowledge they would have created. Ultimately all of this damage is heaped upon the future in the name of safety and security that feeds upon pervasive and malignant fear. We are too afraid as a culture to allow people the freedoms needed to be great and do great things.
So much of modern management seems to think that innovation is something to be managed for and everything can be planned. Like most things where you just try too damn hard, this management approach has exactly the opposite effect. We are actually unintentionally, but actively destroying the environment that allows progress, innovation and breakthroughs to happen. The fastidious planning does the same thing. It is a different thing than having a broad goal and charter that pushes toward a better tomorrow. Today we are expected to plan our research like we are building a goddamn bridge! It is not even remotely the same! The result is the opposite and we are getting less for every research dollar than ever before.
Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.
― Frank Zappa
In a lot of respects getting to an improved state is really quite simple. Two simple changes in how we plan and how we view success at work can make an enormous difference. First we need to always strive to improve, get better whether we are talking personally or in terms of our work. Secondly, we need to not simply be “state of the art” or “world class,” we need to advanced the state of the art, or define what it means to be world class. The driving aim is to strive to be the best and make things better as our default setting. The power of default setting is incredible. The default is so often the unconscious choice that setting the default may be the single most important decision commonly made. As soon as we accept that we, or our work are “good enough” and “fit to purpose” we have lost the battle for the future. The frequency of the default setting of “good enough” is sufficient to ensure that mediocrity creeps inevitably into the frame.
A goal ensures progress. But one gets much further without a goal.
― Marty Rubin
A large part of the problem with our environment is an obsession with measuring performance by the achievement of goals or milestones. Instead of working to create a super productive and empowering work place where people work exceptionally by intrinsic motivation, we simply set “lofty” goals and measure their achievement. The issue is the mindset implicit in the goal setting and measuring; this is the lack of trust in those doing the work. Instead of creating an environment and work processes that enable the best performance, we define everything in terms of milestones. These milestones and the attitudes that surround them sew the seeds of destruction, not because goals are wrong or bad, but because the behavior driven by achieving management goals is so corrosively destructive.
The result is loss of an environment that can enable the best results as a focus, and goal setting that becomes increasingly risk adverse. When goals and milestones are used to judge people, they start to set the bar lower to make sure they meet the standard. The better approach is to create the environment, culture and processes that enable the work to be the best, and reap the rewards that flow naturally. Moreover in the process of creating the environment, culture and process the workplace is happier, as well as higher performing. Intrinsic motivation is harnessed instead of crushed. Everyone benefits from a better workplace and better performance, but we lack the trust needed to do this. Setting goals and milestones simply over charges the achievement and leaves little or no room for the risk necessary for innovation. We find ourselves in a system where the innovation is killed by the lack of risk taking that milestone driven management creates.
So how does progress really work? The truth is that there are really very few major breakthroughs, and almost none of them are every planned. Most of the time people simply make incremental changes and improvements, which have small, but positive changes on what they work on. These are bricks in the wall and gentle nudges to the status quo. Occasionally these small positive changes cause something greater. Occasionally the little thing becomes something monumental and creates a massive improvement. The trick is that you typically can’t tell what little change will have the big impact in advance. Without looking for the small changes as a way of life, and a constant property, the next big thing never comes.
This is the trap of planning. You can’t plan breakthroughs and can’t schedule a better future. Getting to massive improvements is more about creating an environment of excellence, and continuous improvement than any sort of change agenda. The key to getting breakthroughs is to get really good people to work on improving the state of the art or state of the knowledge continuously. We need broad and expansive goals with aspirational character. Instead we have overly specific goals that simply ooze a deep distrust for those conducting the work. With the lack of trust and faith in how the work is done people retract to promising the sure thing, or simply the thing they have already accomplished. The death of progress is found by having a culture of simply implementing and staying at the state of the art or being world class.
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
― George Bernard Shaw
Lots of examples exist in the technical world whether it is new numerical methods, or technology (like GPS for example). Almost none of these sought to change the World, but they did by simply taking a key step over a threshold where the change became great. Social movements are another prime example.
. Take the fight for marriage equality as a great example of the small things leading to huge changes. A county clerk in New Mexico (Dona Ana where Las Cruces is located) stood up and granted marriage licenses to gay and lesbian citizens. This step along with other small actions across the country launched a tidal wave of change that culminated in making marriage equality the law for the entire nation.
So the difference is really simple and clear. You must be expanding the state of the art, or defining what it means to be world class. Simply being at the state of the art or world class is not enough. Progress depends on being committed and working actively at improving upon and defining state of the art and world-class work. Little improvements can lead to the massive breakthroughs everyone aspires toward, and really are the only way to get them. Generally all these things are serendipitous and depend entirely on a culture that creates positive change and prizes excellence. One never really knows where the tipping point is and getting to the breakthrough depends mostly on the faith that it is out there waiting to be discovered.
Be the change that you wish to see in the world.
― Mahatma Gandhi