meaningful progress in a less than certain environment

“Drowning men, it is said, cling to wisps of straw.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

I actually believe there is a lot to be learned about meaningful progress from the pandemic.

Like what you may ask? The heck with progress when survival is at stake. Yeah. That lesson. In this case drowning people weren’t clinging to straw, but rather toilet paper. You get it. Toilet paper is simply the metaphor for “the heck with progress, meaningful or not, I am worried about the basics.” That said. Uncertainty, tied to a health crisis, energizes our survival instincts.

Survival inherently starts squeezing your circle tighter and tighter.

My community becomes my family becomes me.

Panic is the clamp.

Uncertainty tightens the clamp.

There is a lesson here which can guide us a bit toward how to define and energize people toward meaningful progress. But to do so we would have to embrace the most simplistic level any business faces; the two basic demands, as Toffler stated in 1985, “it must execute its current activities to survive today’s challenges and adapt those activities to survive tomorrow’s.”

This means executing and adapting at exactly the same time. Uh oh. Business tends to dislike discussing two things at the same time. But the truth is meaningful progress cannot be discussed without discussing both at exactly the same time. In fact. We must discuss both the finite and the infinite. We must discuss both survival and the basics now and survival and more than the basics later.

Now. A shitload of people will want to immediately start talking about technology. I will not. We do need technological advances to enable some progress, but if people are not progressing, let alone progressing with meaning and at the same pace as any technological whizbang initiatives you may want to shove down their throats, you are screwed. The trick to meaningful progress is twofold:

  • Aligned pacing

Organizations contain layers of pace. Meaningful progress, at its core, means there is some alignment or cadence between the nature of the organization all the way through its interactions with the external markets. But from a pragmatic standpoint it actually means there is some common platform of sensemaking (individuals through organization through external) and the choice making aligns with that sensemaking throughout the organization and across all ‘paces.’ Call it thinking and doing alignment or even executing current activities and tomorrow’s. That alignment does not mean everyone is progressing at the same pace just that everyone is comfortable at the pace they are at and the progress is achieved. I will note that this is incredibly difficult. It is difficult because patterns, actions and recognition, actually occur within a layer and throughout the layers. Its kind of like a constantly shifting Rubix cube.

  • Non simplistic models/plans/objectives

We build simple models and plans inadequate for dynamic markets. As a result, both our sense making and our choice making fails to meet the challenges of the complex, interdependent systems we are part of. The future is neither certain nor predictable, yet, it can be envisioned and brought into being as Donella Meadows once suggested. Systems thinking exposes uncertain context and consequences both of which are difficult to understand, impossible to predict and beyond our capacity to control, yet, we plan, expand horizons and encourage agility to meet emergent opportunities. We do that because we are in the business of doing business and doing nothing isn’t an option. You assess probabilities and design to progress (and have business success) not despite the uncertainty and complexity, but because of opportunities uncertainty and complexity offer. This demands an additional aspect – conversations and people interacting with people. It demands iterative, interactive, exchanges.  This isn’t to say a business cannot construct a less adaptable version just that while it may offer some short-term success it would do so at the expense of some longer term resilience viability.

All that said. Where does meaningful progress begin? In objective setting? Vision alignment? Clarity of mission? Or, God forbid, Purpose?

Nope. None of them.

“Before you disturb a system, watch how it behaves.”

Donella Meadows

It begins with where you are and how you, and the system, is behaving.

Now. You never truly have accurate information; you only have directional information, so ‘behaves’ does not mean ‘figuring it out.’ It means recognition of patterns, cadence and rhythm.

This is a different version of data analysis. Its data that shows movement not answers.

It’s a different version of culture. Its how the organizations behaves in and of itself.

It’s a different version of ROI. Its how the system assesses ROC (return on choice).

Any viable discussion of progress begins with the system itself. Why? Because if you set some milestone or objective counterintuitive to the system you are doomed to fail not only anything meaningful but likely with no progress either.

This may sound counterintuitive to a traditional manager/leader because the typical approach to business emphasizes plan tied to specific intentions/objectives and then communicating them as actions to be executed by people. In Toffler’s terms, “executing current activities not to adapt to tomorrow’s challenges, but today’s challenge.” Yeah. Seems a bit short sighted, no? this is all grounded in an odd belief that you can understand the ‘system’ well enough to predict its behavior and actually forecast not only its behaviors, but outcomes. This actually becomes a weird dance of a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the management mainly ignores the market dynamics solely focusing on insuring outcomes meet forecast goals. It is weird because they eliminate uncertainty <thru some dubious cloaking machine> creating just certain goals/outcomes to be met. I imagine their assumption is the system will produce these things simply because we ‘assume’ it should. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that while this can reduce some uncertainty, it can actually increase some anxiety if the market doesn’t do what it is expected to do **.

 ** note: it will not and you are lucky if it does within some range that permits you to meet forecasted objectives.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out the real anxiety should be in the meaningful progress opportunities missed.


Which leads me to FOMO (fear of missing out).

Fear of missing out (FOMO) isn’t just about the new and innovative cutting-edge stuff, but it is about meaningful progress. In a world in which information is nonstop and someone somewhere is paying attention to something you are not (and invariably pointing it out), FOMO actually applies to, well, everything. Your neighborhood gossip/crime watch website, the school parent site, some Facebook group, your twitter ‘tribe’, favorite news site, the list goes on and on. Sure. It also applies to conspiracies (what if it is true and I missed out on the initial ‘truth’ ?!?), but in today’s world it is simply about everything. Now. Living in the present, a common fortune cookie Life wisdom, almost suggests if you are missing something you are not fully present. This entire paragraph outlines one huge blob standing in the way of meaningful progress. Ponder.

Next. This all leads to the wretched underbelly of FOMO — FOLC (fear of losing control). And, yeah, having information (often mistakenly conflated with knowledge) does equate to some sense of control in many people’s minds. In other words, in a firehose world of information people feel like they have more control if they could only drink from that firehose. The realization you only drown in doing so creates a asnse of anxiety and loss of control. This is where ‘understanding’ comes into play because understanding is the bridge between control and lack of control, certainty and uncertainty and missing out and ‘knowing.’ To be clear. You better enjoy the view from that bridge because that is where meaningful progress truly resides – not on either end. That said. You can increase your abilities in ‘understanding’ (or ‘capability of uncertainty’ as Bennett, Verwey & van der Merwe suggest) through sense of positive identity, acceptance of uncertainty, effective sensemaking, learning agility and relevant leadership experience during uncertainty. I would argue that these are actually components of meaningful progress (Dr. Jason Fox).

But their larger point is that once you have some experience, you usually have a sense of what lies ahead. To be clear, not exactly, but you can frame some possibilities with some probability to where you could potentially progress toward. This means you will then begin to make some choices. Here is where it gets a bit trickier. Some of those possibilities can look an awful lot like something like the present, or something in the past, which will inevitably trigger a default muscle to choose and do. In other words, you slam a round peg solution into what you think is a round hole, but is actually something slightly different than round. This is where sensemaking ability pays off. Possibilities can have a sense of similarity, but sensemaking uncovers the contextual differences or the variants. The variants are incredibly important because not all context differences are created equal. What I mean by that is if the essential components are NOT variants, an existing solution may actually be quite effective.  This is where you can push thru some crisis-inducing default choice making. This is where you can find meaningful progress.

Yeah. At the core of what I am suggesting is that ‘context’ is a lazy generic way to avoid talking about variations. Context is all that matters really means that today has some variants from yesterday so maybe you better not simply do exactly what you did yesterday. But it also then leads you to seeing patterns and variants as important things to, well, see combinations of what is common and what is not. It also permits you to become reasonably confident of common variants and expected performance – within a range. I would also suggest this leads you to your next big decision if you want a system producing meaningful progress – deciding what is effective standardization versus rigid implementation. I bring that up because standardization tends to make people break out in hives. But the truth is almost every business needs some effective standardization. The replicable stuff that undergirds value creation. this is important because nothing happens in a predictable way unless you build the system to permit, and cause, the predictable and replicable to occur. Yes. Meaningful progress always has a thread of some replication or standardization.

Which leads me to how can you ensure your effective standardization doesn’t drop down to rigid implementation.

Even standardization demands some constant improvement or learning with some speed (versus slow accumulation of learning). I would note that speed in learning can usually be done by squeezing your OODA loops into faster cycles, drive the observation/decision loop closer to the prior so learning becomes not only iterative, but more likely to be innovative/emergent focused. It also protects from rigid implementation. All that said. There is no substitute for knowledge. Period. But there cannot be knowledge without information. Information is the lifeblood, the nuclear power, the electricity, of any business – innovation, improvement, implementation, ideation, all are derived from information. Timely, useful, information uncovers everything you need to see to do what you need to do and should do in order to attain meaningful progress.

Which leads me to learning agility.

Learning agility is more than just learning. Lessons of experience are rarely linear/cause & effect just as lessons from information gathering is mostly of analogy, not parallel. The challenge then becomes how do you leverage new information in the present to create positive possibilities in the future. This objective almost demands someone who is constantly becoming and embraces a fluidity of roles (usually on a spectrum). So instead of simple knowledge extraction its reflective learning. By reflective I mean gathering knowledge that provides perspective (which is an essential aspect to dealing with constantly evolving contexts or what some people call ongoing uncertainty). This is also, from a systems thinking perspective, becoming a learner of a higher order – learning about multiple parts of a system. To be clear. This is not a “learn more is better”, but rather multifaceted learning (on a variety of adjacent topics, non-adjacent topics and applicable topics). By having a multi-level learning ‘input’ it increases one’s capacity to accept uncertainty, and complexity, as ‘normal’ and expansive in nature (not a reductive reality). That last thought basically means you have a positive view of uncertainty and complexity because the learning/knowledge you have makes it navigable.

To paraphrase Donella Meadows, you learn to love the dance with uncertainty and complexity. You have a positive relationship with systems, uncertainty and complexity and understand it is not about control, but in better understanding the one you dance with. In an odd-ish way, learning agility success also gets tied to survival. What I mean by that is part of meaningful progress is making it through the day and the ‘grind du jour’ every business faces. Surviving today to make progress tomorrow is an essential ingredient to meaningful progress. I am not suggesting simply surviving everyday in and of itself is progress (its just survival), but that there will be days in which you are simply trying to survive and those days permit you to get the progress in the future. Learning agility is your weapon for survival.

“Sensemaking involves generating a plausible and coherent account of what is going on through iterative processes of information gathering, conversations, thinking and actions.”

Maitlis & Christianson 2014, Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld 2005

Which leads me to the importance of conversations.

Conversations liberate ignorance and complexity by offering perspective (and perspective on those survival days). Conversations are actually key to sense making, systems understanding and narratives (framing). It is an extension of the importance of experiencing complexity and uncertainty (which increases identity, confidence and understanding). If we are honest with ourselves, even our best experience in a dynamic/complex system is only a fraction of the entire system. The only way to broaden that experience is to have conversations to not only put that experience into perspective, but to gain a more generalist type learning. Those conversations become REALLY important in avoiding what is called ‘developmental blindness’. A good example is when conversations occur between two types of people (in my business model world) – roadmap is good people versus the roadmap is limiting people. You need both people so the trick is to not have them in conflict, but collaborating in some way (kind of like optimizing the road you progress on which is on your map but maybe veering off the roads you mapped out front). This mostly occurs through, well, yes, conversations. It was actually Dr. Jason Fox who tucked this thought into my mind – “honest communication creates coherent sensemaking”. From coherent sensemaking cascades all the good things you want – roadmap adaptation, metrics/objectives collaboration, agreement of progress and meaningful progress.

** note: the latter, meaningful progress, is achieved through common agreement on the roadmap is good/roadmap is limiting people on the journey and destinations.

Which leads me to definitions over details.

Common narratives, common aim and focus/vision, all important aspects of conversations, demands common agreement on definitions.

Quality. What do we mean by that?

Resilience. What does that mean?

Transparency. What is that exactly?

Vagueness permits a variety of expectations which makes meeting your own focus more likely to miss the target. Everybody has to have, fundamentally, the same view on whatever key ‘words’ you use. Different definitions make the details of what you do and how you go about doing it irrelevant. All I know is meaningful progress can never truly be attained without agreement on definitions.


Progress, let alone meaningful progress, can sometimes feel a bit muddled. Yeah. There are some objectives and specific deadlines strewn about, but for the most part you spend a lot of time seemingly standing in a fog shrouded crossroads. Our capability to navigate all of this is limited, or constrained, by a number of things, but let’s go with ‘survival.’ Survival has a number of dimensions – old habits survive, comfort survives, income survives, career survives, friendships survive, beliefs survive. You get it. Survival is often as much about the trappings of life as it is about Life itself. And while survival is possibly the most basic intrinsic human characteristic, in a progress mindset you find survival is less about keeping alive and more about possibilities. What I mean by that is keeping alive creates more possibilities and more choices. The more choices the more likely to steer toward success where possibilities and progress, meaningful and less than meaningful, is found.

Basic survival progress <which is a version of change> is slow and barely noticeable and most people will ignore it. Without any compelling reason to change most people just hold on to what they know. To be fair, viewed through this lens that seems like a logical move.  In fact, I would point out that for most people environment turbulence <which is more often a perception than a reality> almost demands stabilization. Even when the turbulence is only perceived, the reality will be a veering toward stabilizing and stability. Survival progress feels good because even with incremental change, its change, and you are surviving. Circling back to the beginning of this paragraph, this is a constraint, a limitation.

Effectively navigating a dynamic marketplace, turbulence or not, with meaningful progress in mind, actually demands adaptation, some agility, maybe some innovation, certainly some new strategies and, in the most extreme situations, actually restructuring the entire construct (make one malleable to the context). Paradoxically, extreme progress is navigated best with understanding (situational awareness skills, not guessing) yet due to its inherent uncertainty that ‘understanding’ is conceptual at best. I say that because, circling back to the first sentence in this section, progress can sometimes feel muddled.

In the end I would suggest meaningful progress is actually about escalating value so by the time a buyer arrives at the purchase decision, the value, perceived and real, is at its highest. While that may sound a bit simplistically capitalistic, I am speaking of meaningful progress within a business environment and a business’s mission is to offer value in order to charge for that value. This means that thinking and actions should escalate in value so by the time the project, initiative, coherent actions, reach its natural conclusion the value, perceived and real, is at its highest.

Meaningful progress demands that we, in business, conceptually observe, gain some orientation in a coherent way, deal with the unavoidable realities (finite possibilities), envision an objective (or multiple) and implement value creation. That, to me, is full sense making from a business perspective. This is sensemaking for value creation (which is the ultimate business objective). This translates into meaningful progress.


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Written by Bruce