Progress Trap– Creating, Escaping, Adapting, Solving– Business Blunders, Unintended Consequences…

Progress Trap: 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  (note: the term ‘progress trap’ is a copyright of Daniel B. O’Leary)

Progress trap is when human ingenuity, in pursuing progress, introduces a problem(s) that it does not have the resources or imagination to solve, preventing further progress. A progress trap embellishes the idea of unintended consequences: Conditions change; ideas are carried to excess, turn sour, maybe even perilous.

According to Daniel B. O’Leary; avoiding the trap is possible, through nurturing and exploiting our talent for creative problem-solving. Resilience, creativity, patience, and sacrifice all factor into the challenge of avoiding progress traps… The term gained attention following Ronald Wright’s 2004 book ‘A Short History of Progress’, in which he sketches world history, as a succession of progress traps.

In Daniel B. O’Leary’s 2006 book ‘Escaping the Progress Trap’ he suggests; civilizations are described in terms of rising and falling, but it’s more accurate to say that they have divergent cycles of: – advancing through necessity or ingenuity; – becoming overdeveloped, losing those natural instincts required for sustained survival; – and reverting (slowly or convulsively) to less developed condition.

According to Daniel C. Dennett; mistakes are not just golden opportunities for learning; they are, in an important sense, the only opportunity for learning something new… Innovation evolution proceeds by a grand, inexorable process of trial and error, and without the errors the trials wouldn’t accomplish anything.

In the article Behavioral Progress Trap by Robert ‘Doc’ Hall writes: Unintended consequences hit suddenly and dramatically… When everything is going hunky-dory, catastrophes in waiting, are hard for us to psychologically anticipate. Progress traps describe business processes too rigid and too specialized to adapt to change. Some famous names zapped by organizational rigidity, include; DEC, Kodak, GM, and IBM (with its PC). These progress traps led to financial shrinkage, but not physical disaster.

However, if our entire industrial society is a big progress trap, developing organizational agility to cope with rapid change would seem wise. But organizing for rapid change requires coping with the most devious of progress traps, our own mental and psychological limits.

Linking a big global goal to local and practical ones is a big stretch. We must learn to better sense the physical consequences of our actions, now and in the future. We must even question whether achievements that we think represent success will continue to do so. Daunting as this seems, the real challenge is to learn how real people, in real work organizations, can learn how to make prudent transitions and escape the progress traps…

In the article Decision-making Problems and Pitfalls by Kourdi writes: The way that people think, both as individuals and collectively within organizations, affects the decisions that they make, in ways that are far from obvious and rarely understood.  Although bad decisions can often be traced back to the way the decisions were made (e.g., alternatives were not clearly defined; the right information was not collected; the costs and benefits were not accurately weighed), the fault sometimes lies not in decision-making process, but in the mind of the decision maker.

The work of the human brain can frequently undermine our choices and decisions, and this is shown in several ways…  Avoiding progress traps requires recognition that they exist, and an understanding of the one(s) that is the likeliest to cause you problems, for example:

  • Anchoring trap; is where we give disproportionate weight to the first piece of information that we receive. This often happens because the initial impact of the first information, our immediate reaction to it, is so significant that it outweighs everything else, drowning our ability to effectively evaluate a situation.
  • Status quo trap; biases us towards maintaining the current situation even when better alternatives exist. This might be caused by inertia, or the potential loss of face if the current position was to change.
  • Sunk-cost trap; inclines us to perpetuate the mistakes of the past, because we have invested so much in this approach/ decision that we cannot abandon it or alter course now.
  • Confirming evidence trap; also known as confirmation bias, is when we seek information to support an existing predilection, and discount opposing information. It can also be shown as a tendency to seek confirming evidence to justify past decisions.
  • Over-confidence trap; makes us overestimate the accuracy of our forecasts. Closely linked to confirming evidence, the over-confidence trap is when a decision-maker has an exaggerated belief in their ability to understand situations and predict the future.
  • Framing trap; is when a problem or situation is incorrectly stated, completely undermining the decision-making process as a result. This is often unintentional, but not always.
  • Recent event trap; leads us to give undue weight to a recent, and quite probably dramatic, event or sequence of events. This is very similar to the anchoring trap, except that it can arise at any time not just at the start and cause a misjudgment.
  • Prudence trap; leads us to be over-cautious when we make estimates about uncertain factors. It is shown by a tendency to be very risk averse, and is particularly likely to occur when there is decision dilemma, i.e, continuing the current approach carries risks, and alternative actions also carries risks.

In the article Four Mistakes Leaders Keep Making by Robert H. Schaffer writes: Deeply rooted in the managerial psyche are basic behavior traps that thwart organization change, particularly its elusive human dimension. The four basic behavior traps are extremely difficult to recognize because they are almost always mechanisms for avoiding anxiety. They serve to protect egos and prevent discomfort:

  • Trap 1: Failing to Set Proper Expectations.
  • Trap 2: Excusing Subordinates from the Pursuit of Overall Goals.
  • Trap 3: Colluding with Staff Experts and Consultants.
  • Trap 4: Waiting While Associates Prepare, Prepare, Prepare.

The behavior trap can sabotage even productive organizations… and, the first (and toughest) step is simple awareness. Push yourself outside your comfort zone and experiment… Small personal experiments tend to be the most liberating. A useful experiment meets three criteria: It rapidly produces tangible; reinforcing results (i.e., it’s not just a preparatory step) and it incurs very little risk of failure; and it’s confined enough to demonstrate a clear, incontrovertible link between the experimental behavior and the outcome.

The reason the behavior trap remain so damaging, despite all we’ve learned about organizations is that, whatever price they extract, they do satisfy certain psychological needs. To escape the trap, managers have to do battle with their own resistance, as they would in trying to change any well-entrenched habit…

In the article Avoid Trap That Hinder Progress by Adrienne Adams writes: One success tip: Stick with it– plain and simple. Whether you’re working on a business venture, technology development, marketing program… stick with it. When you stop working at it, your chances of achieving the results drop down to zero. But, beware of the trap that can very easily keep you from experiencing success:

  • Trap 1: Shiny new things: Are you someone who has a different idea every couple of months? Don’t get distracted. Success comes when you focus on a goal, map out your plan, and go for it.
  • Trap 2: Giving up: It’s not over until you quit. There is no road to success that doesn’t contain a few missteps or perhaps even a tumble or two. Learn from it and keep going. You’re closer to your goal now than you were when you started.
  • Trap 3: Setting yourself up for failure: Make a list of resources that you need. Get rid of things that don’t contribute to your success. Create an environment that will sustain your vision.

In the article The ‘Comparing’ Trap by Thomas J. DeLong writes: ‘Comparing’ is a trap that permeates our lives, especially if we’re high-need-for-achievement professionals. No matter how successful we are and how many goals we achieve, this trap causes us to recalibrate our accomplishments and reset the bar for how we define success.

What we’ve done in the past doesn’t matter; real success or achievement requires something more, e.g., job title we’ve never held, task we’ve never done, company we’ve never worked for… No matter how much we achieve, we are never satisfied with our achievements, when we’re caught in the ‘comparing’ trap. Find your own measure and reminder that you’re on track (or not), and avoid falling into the comparing behavior trap. Consider the following measures:

  • Capstone progress: Chart your progress toward your ideal position, determining if you’re acquiring the experiences and expertise that make you a viable candidate for that position.
  • Satisfaction index: Keep track of how meaningful and fulfilling your work is; create a numerical satisfaction scale that depends on how much you’re enjoying what you do and how purposeful it seems; take a reading regularly.
  • Learning level: Assess the knowledge and skills you acquire and whether you’re becoming an ‘expert’ in an important area…

It’s not that high-need-for-achievement individuals can eliminate their comparing reflex completely, nor should they. Throughout history, our greatest generals, CEOs, lawyers, other professionals have driven themselves to achieve significant objectives by trying to outdo others.

Comparing becomes a trap, however, when people become so consumed by measuring themselves against others that they fail to step back, and see how it’s impacting their actions, and fail to acknowledge and celebrate their own unique successes. When only external factors become our metrics for success, we are setting ourselves up for misery and the progress trap…

Civilization is an experiment, and it has a habit of walking into what I call the progress trap: The human inability to foresee — or to watch out for — long-range consequences that may be inherent to our kind… It may also be little more than a mix of inertia, greed, and foolishness encouraged by the shape of the social pyramid… ~Ronald Wright