What Goes Down Must Come Up … A Progress in Spirals

Kathleen Peterson Rants & Raves by Kathleen Peterson

“The human mind always makes progress, but it is a progress in spirals.” Madame de Stael

Madame de Stael was a French-Swiss writer, woman of letters, and early champion of women’s rights. She was considered among Napoléon’s major opponents and spent much of her life in exile. When I recently came across Madame de Stael’s quote, I was struck by the genius of it. “Progress in spirals” just seems like such an accurate description of many initiatives undertaken in business today. Often the changes we must deal with are driven by events, projects, or initiatives that require major alterations to infrastructure, process, procedure, culture, and technology.

The intention of these initiatives is typically to make some kind of “progress.” We look to produce results that improve market share, profitability, margins, quality, the Customer Experience, efficiency, sales … the list goes on and on. The challenge I see often is that the expectations of these activities are viewed in a linear fashion; expectations are organized around a strict relationship between inputs and outputs. A strong and optimistic belief is adopted. If we do X, then Y will follow. We work hard to “see” the future outcomes of our various initiatives and the “progress” that will be enjoyed as a result of our creativity, energy, and hard work.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out this way. Our plans may lack anticipation of the complexity of implementation, availability of resources, timeliness of decisions, adoption of changes, and a plethora of other unanticipated conditions that cause the project to stall or alter realities. At best this creates disappointment and at worst fear.

Many projects are burdened by blame. When something goes wrong and it often does, the event sparks the search for the guilty. This wastes time and energy on things like plotting, gossiping, and accusing rather than on the actions that need to be taken in light of the new reality.

What if we reconsidered and thought of progress in terms of “spirals?” Is it possible that we would be less surprised or upset when we encounter obstacles that require “detours” or cause delays in our plans? It seems to me that some issues could be viewed simply as a curve in the “spiral of progress.” Is it our linear thinking and expectations that lead to disappointment and subsequent lack of efficiency, creativity, and even team spirit?

What if early in a project everyone agreed on the improvement objectives, understood the assumptions regarding absolute outcomes, and prepared to view “progress in spirals?” What if we could simply adjust our expectations? If we understood that progress often comes in “spirals,” we would be able to see the progress amid the chaos. Spiral is defined as “something that follows a winding course or that has a twisting form.” I have witnessed so many improvement efforts that took a “winding course” and almost certainly a “twisting form!”

When we view “progress in spirals” we will more likely focus our energy on spiraling up rather than spiraling downward. The impact of understanding and looking for “progress in spirals” may actually make more sense. Real long-term improvement takes time, detours, patience, awareness, and optimism. It also involves evaluating what isn’t working, what assumptions were wrong, and what was unanticipated. This is where we learn and bond as a team. This is where WE IMPROVE and make our own “progress in spirals.” But this is also where WE CHALLENGE our own knowledge, practices, and beliefs to spur our own growth.

We live in times in which we must be our own best advocate. Learning, changing, adjusting, and continuing to be curious are assets that promise growth. Fear, pessimism, paralyzing doubt, aversion to risk, and all the negativity that surrounds us must be slain like a beast that wants to overwhelm and destroy. Recognize the beast within yourself and work hard to manage your mind. That is where the beast is fueled.

Last night I was sitting in front of a rather large window – a kind of window-wall up on the side of a mountain. I was watching the news on TV and finishing up some emails when I glanced outside and saw the most glorious sight … the rising moon. This huge orange ball in the eastern sky was so breathtaking! But its beauty was challenged by the endless droning of the bad news (“Things on Wall Street picked up today. But how long can it last?”) – fueling the negative beast with fear, uncertainty, and doubt. So I did the only thing I could do. I turned off the TV, declared myself on a news-fast, stepped outside, and enjoyed the wonder. This brilliant spectacle proves without a doubt that no matter what else is happening in this world professionally or personally, we are surrounded by beauty, peace, and calm. We simply need to be aware, to participate, to turn off the endless noise about what is wrong, and get in the game of what is right. Even if only to feel the wonder of the universe for a brief moment – a spiraling up – our spirits are lifted!

We can be truly effective and confident only when we feel free to fail, to make mistakes, to correct the course, and to continue moving forward and upward. These are the assets of an optimistic view of the world. We gain insight by the example of a train. A train goes up a mountain in a spiraling fashion, not always able to actually see what is around the bend. We also go up and down mountains in spirals, both personally and professionally. We must trust ourselves to continue to round those bends, deal with the challenges, learn from them, and stay on course. We will reach the top! “Progress in spirals”…I love the concept and hope you do too

My Best,