The Progress Principle (1) states that the most important thing a manager can do is to facilitate progress each and every day even if just small wins.
Sounds straightforward enough on the face of it, but what is progress? How do we know that something we did is actually progress and not just spinning wheels?
I want to suggest that one way to approach this, i.e., evaluating progress, is make a distinction between advancement and continuation.
I came across this distinction quite some time ago (2) in a book on selling, which we used in an internal training course at the consulting company I was with at the time.
The book’s use of these concepts was formulated to fit the selling process, but it occurred to me that this would be equally relevant to progress in a project context.
Advancement means that we have completed something that has reduced the time or cost required to complete the project.
Continuation means that while we completed something however necessary and valuable that may be, we have not reduced the time or cost required to finish the project.
There’s a qualitative difference at play here. In both cases, we may conclude that we have ‘earned value’ and report it as such. Apparently we have made progress.
And we probably have, in the sense that something necessary and concrete got done. I don’t want to take away from the value of concluding exactly in this manner in light of the signaling and motivational effects as per the progress principle.
However, we need to be clear on where we are overall. For example, we may have to do necessary rework on something, retest something or rewrite something because of an unanticipated problem. Chances are that this becomes net new work on top of what was already planned.
While necessary, it does not reduce estimated cost or time to complete. This is a continuation because the time spent did not come off the estimates to complete, it added to the schedule and costs instead. It’s obviously also progress of a sort because we got the mess straightened out and reduced risk.
If we complete e.g., design, build or testing without schedule delays, the time spent has worked off the estimate to complete so that we have advancement.
- Amabile, Teresa., Stephen Kramer, (2011). The Progress Principle, Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, Harvard Buseinss Review Press, Bostaon, MA.
- Rackham, Neil., (1996). SPIN SELLING Fieldbook, McGrawHill, New York, NY.
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