Systems Thinking 2: Activity=Progress

The recent economic woes, and accompanying 10% official unemployment rate, have a lot of my friends looking for work. Down-sized, right-sized, cap-sized, some are entering their job search emotionally ill-equipped for the journey ahead. The job search process is discouraging, I think primarily because the task of getting a new job is 0% complete until it’s 100% complete – that is, until the offer is in hand. This is a terrific example of a non-linear process, where the output is not proportional to the input. In plain English, linear systems have a 1-to-1 relationship between inputs and outputs. Doubling the input doubles the output. For example, if you drive twice as fast on an open stretch of road – say 160 km/hour (around 100 mph) instead of 80 km/hour (around 50 mph) – you will travel twice as far per hour. And halfway through the hour you’ll be halfway through the total distance. That’s tidy, linear, and easy to understand. And most of life isn’t like that. We intuitively know that if we work twice as many hours a day on our project we won’t necessarily make twice as much progress, and it could even make things worse due to increased mistakes requiring rework.

Job searches, projects, and life in general, are non-linear. Non-linear systems have more complicated relationships between their “goes-into” inputs and “comes-out-of” outputs. Imagine a person who takes 10 months to find a new job, like one of my extremely well-educated, experienced and talented friends. About 9.5 months into the process how do you think he feels? Like he’s 95% done? Nope!  Not at all. In fact, he was more discouraged than ever, feeling farther from the goal than at any other time during the job search process.  And then 2 weeks later he got a terrific job. Poof! Notice that in such a non-linear process there can be little indication of progress toward the goal until the goal is achieved.

There are plenty of examples of tough to track non-linear processes in projects. The number of bugs fixed isn’t necessarily an indication of how close the product is to being ready to ship if one show-stopper bug stands between the team and a shippable product. When it comes to safety, a product is either going to meet safety requirements or it’s not. It would be strange to say “Our product is 90% non-lethal.” It’s either possible for the product to kill you, or it’s not. The number of features included in a product might not directly relate to the suitability for the market, or subsequent customer satisfaction.

Psychologists have studied the relationship between perceived progress and the level of effort people put out. It’s no surprise that they’ve found that people will work more productively if they can see the progress they are making towards their goal. (In fact one study I came across indicated that people will put out up to 60% more effort if they perceive their steady progress towards the goal.) But in non-linear situations this kind of visibility of progress is not so easy to come by (and in most cases in project scheduling % complete is just so much nonsense made up by someone filling in a spreadsheet).

So how are we supposed to maintain our team’s motivation and productivity when it’s extremely difficult to determine how much progress we are making towards our goal? We simply must find ways to help our teams perceive progress. I’ve found that the next best thing to measuring progress in such a situation is to measure activity. In these circumstances activity = progress. In a job search that means tracking the number of jobs applied for, resumes sent out, phone calls made, networking breakfasts, lunches and dinners, professional association meetings attended, and even rejections received. In a product development project that could mean tracking the number of defects fixed, as many teams do, maybe adding a weighting factor for level of severity of bugs fixed to make. Or maybe tracking the number of safety tests completed, markets sampled or customers surveyed.

Could your project benefit from an additional 60% productive effort from your team? Find ways to help them sense their progress towards the goals, and keep them informed of this progress through regular updates. Don’t settle for practically useless progress indicators like % complete. Find some meaningful activity to measure, track it visibly, and keep your team informed of the rate of completion of these activities in pursuit of the ultimate goal. And if you are one of the people experiencing the excitement of career transition, keeping a visible record of your activities on the wall of your bathroom can help you perceive your progress towards the uncertain date of your next employment. There are lots more jobs available these past few months. Keep Hope Alive! Survive to Thrive! Good luck!


3 thoughts on “Systems Thinking 2: Activity=Progress”

  1. The sales process is similar to the job hunting process. The output is very non-linear. Many CRM tools are designed to linearize this process to make it easier for humans to handle. By quantifying and measuring the activities over which you have control and that are known to ultimately yield the desired results, you can rationalize your “progress” each day. How many leads do you generate? How many calls do you make? How many doors do you knock on? These are the results over which you have much more control than the final yes. Even calling it a sales “pipeline” implies a linear process. But, as you clearly point out, it is anything but. Breaking down non-linear process to small steps helps us linearize the process (remember x=sinx for x<<1?). Many sales process are designed to do that to help those of us who respond linearly. And, those process do get the desired results. Good luck, job hunting!

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    Yup, I totally agree, Bill! Measuring the wrong things can certainly drive the wrong behavior, so measures must be chosen with care. I once heard a division manager at HP lamenting the wasted in office supplies, and suggesting measuring the use of paper clips. I asked him if he really wanted people spending time worrying about the effective use of paper clips? After all, what gets measured is what gets done, and what’s rewarded is repeated. Measuring the wrong things can be worse than measuring nothing, but that’s no reason to run screaming in the other direction. There are solutions, and if you search and experiment, tweaking where necessary, you will find measures that drive the right behavior.

  3. So the essence of the approach is that in the absence of meaningful, objective and verifiable measures of goal attainment we should rely on perceived measures? I am not buying into the argument.

    An example where a perceived measure provided a short term feeling of success but tragically proved to extend a ‘project’ far beyond when it should have ended was the Vietnam war.

    Day after day body counts were the TV news headlines. Believing the Pentagon knew what they were doing the public initially saw the numbers of proof that we must be winning. However in the longer term everyone came to realize that the measure itself was flawed.

    Subsequently both political and military leaders recognized the problem in motivating the country. While still in use the measure no longer has the preeminence in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars than it did in Vietnam.

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