The non-revolutionary art of consistent progress

I am not sure about the statistics but most of us can agree that the media is full of dramatic events: forest fires, shootings, earthquakes, stock market panic attacks. Dramatic things are interesting and catches our eye, they make us stop zapping between the channels and spend some of our precious time watching it. On the other hand, slow moving changes are not very exciting and most of the time media will not even be interested in trying to show them to us, as it doesn’t help their ratings.

Helping our ratings is basically what we are all trying to do. Sometimes in a social context but perhaps even more so in a working and business context. We want to be seen and make sure that we get praise for what we have achieved. How do we best do that?

Fighting the fire

The companies that most of us work in will have some version of “why can’t we seem to stop fighting fires”-message floating around in the hallways. “We need to be proactive and not reactive”, we state with a deep sigh. Why fight fires? Because fighting fires is an impressive feat! We like firefighters, and not only the literal ones that have lights on their cars. In the office, stepping in and taking charge of a crisis is impressive, it is almost heroic. And heroism is good.

Doing a good job and not allowing risk to materialize into real issues is boring. Dealing with sudden issues is exciting and cool. What if nothing ever goes wrong? Then how will we even show that we are doing anything at all? The company may think we are not needed or something.

We need you to look more stressed

The whole heroism mindset shows itself in how we think (or not think) about things at work. It goes something like this:

  • Working late to hit a deadline is good, being done 2 days in advance seems like you haven’t cared to go the extra mile
  • Being tired and hollow-eyed is good and shows commitment, being fresh means you probably don’t work hard enough
  • Walking quickly and seeming annoyed is good as you must be busy, being relaxed shows that you don’t care enough to get worked up

In essence, being done with time to spare, looking fresh and being relaxed would make you a bad contributor of some sort. Most people know that this is not the case, but it somehow doesn’t matter, our fight/flight commander function will still think that powerful and sudden action is the best way to go. I have myself had feedback at work stating, “you don’t look stressed enough”. I am still waiting for the feedback on the actual work.

A Perfect storm

The gig economy, the rise of contracting, interim management and automation raises an interesting question about who will take on accountability in the future. Work done by a robot that was implemented by a contractor who was managed by an interim manager. Then we will report it to another interim manager who likes highly summarized information presented in a concise manner so (s)he can make a quick decision and get fast results. Now of course, this data will be “real time” which means we will be able to watch what is going on all the time, and have an opportunity to react at a seconds notice. I can see situations where that could be useful. I can also see a lot of situations where that would not be useful at all.accountability-1

Moving towards questionable accountability and a higher dopamine environment, I believe the mantra we have heard many times before will remain, and probably become even more important. It is not what you choose to do, it is what you choose not to do. Who can best manage to cut through the clutter and keep focus on what is important?

That doesn’t happen to me

“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone”    

Blaise Pascal

Clearly by stating all this, I am awesome at just doing important things and be on my long term crusade to success. Wrong! Have you tried to sit alone in a room and think about a hard issue? It is really hard, exceptionally hard even. At least personally I find it very difficult to sit still and focus on one thing for more than a few minutes without letting the mind wander, check my e-mail or get up to sort out a cup of coffee.

I am not sure whether Mr Pascal was correct in saying “all men’s miseries”, but I would agree that a lot of issues come from the fact that we would rather run around and solve some urgent issue that makes us look good than sitting around trying to think about a serious problem, risking not looking stressed enough.

Real progress

Progress can for sure take its shape in leaps and bounds and when it does, we are quick to clap our hands and acknowledge it. A lot of time it is not exciting at all, it is the result of a long, slow, imperfect slog. You want to see real progress? Read Hans Rosling’s book “Factfullness” and be surprised about quite a few things. Did you know we have taken extreme poverty (living on less than $2/day) down from 50% to 9% since 1966? Of course not. That is boring and has still taken ~50 years to do. Not very newsworthy on any given night. It is more likely we know about what President Trump tweeted last night. Similarly, in finance we often slog away at improving processes or use of technology and nobody ever notice because we are busy admiring something shiny.

Rest assured, we will have enough problems

Getting back to the point of making progress at work to not be seen as someone who doesn’t do anything. Rest assured. If you are dealing with anything complicated, things will go wrong. If you push the pace, things will go wrong. Tru to be rational and not over-react, things will still go wrong. On the other hand, if you are doing simple things at a moderate pace and that is what you have done for a long time, maybe today is a day to be worried. 




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