#39 Progress in Cycles, Not Productivity in Lines


If organisations want to get better at what they do, then their people have to be able to learn. Working within a rigid operating model that is designed on outdated management assumptions and related structures makes it almost impossible for employees to reflect and learn.

| Hermanni Hyytiälä

The Limits of Lines

Considering time as a linear sequence of minutes, days, weeks, months, and years may seem natural. That's how clocks and candles seem to work, anyway. And that's the basis of how the realm of 'productivity' seems to operate. I create a task; assign a start date and an end date; perhaps add some metadata, like attachments, project name, @-mentions for people to be notified, and so on. The task is thought of as a line on a Gantt chart, grouped with other linear tasks, adding up to a linear project. And implicitly, time marches on, indicated by the length and end points of the lines.

And then we come to view ourselves as just another bit of metadata attached to the task, and all our work is a series of subtasks subordinate to the task and project.

What if we considered time as dozens (or hundreds) of loops, interconnected in myriad ways, but most importantly cycling; not bulleting from a start to a finish like a ball from a cannon, but instead but more like an airplane's propeller which -- by circling around a fixed axis -- creates forward motion indirectly, based on the speed, size, and angle of the propeller and the upward force on the wing.

Or consider a long-term project like gardening. A garden is not made in a short timeline, checking things off a list like 'plant annuals', 'plant trees', or 'weed dandelions next to the house'. Gardening is a long-term activity, and involves many seasonally inflected activities. Most importantly, a gardener has to adapt to the nature and progress of the plants, and reconsider the approach in process based on what emerges.

A garden created with a sequence of short-term, self-contained tasks will not yield a real garden, but some pale imitation: an imitation that is unlikely to thrive. And the checklist does not natively include the idea of observing, learning, and experimentation.


I was motivated to consider these ideas because I read an intriguing post by Anne-Laure Le Cunff in she proposes another acronymed model for something-more-than-goal setting. She quotes Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.

Le Cunff proposes a system for the growth mindset she calls PARI, a literal virtuous cycle of four phases for reaching desired outcomes:

  • PACT - Yet another acronym -- Purposeful, Actionable, Continuous, Trackable -- that she proposes as an alternative to the conventional SMART approach (read about that here: SMART goals are not so smart: make a PACT instead). I won't be drilling down into that, as I will explain soon.
  • ACT - Allocate the time to do what you've committed to do.
  • REACT - Make time for self-reflection to learn from what you've been doing, and make adaptations based on any insights gained.
  • IMPACT - As your cycle has passed through some cycles, it's time to assess whether you should be kicking off or revisiting other cycles, and perhaps spending less time on this one.

I was inspired by what I thought was the vision for PARI, but it doesn’t click with me. First, it seems to position the four parts as phases that proceed serially. Note that PACT is a goal-oriented technique adopted prior to the start of the initiative, and IMPACT is an off-ramp at the end of (or pause in) the initiative. So only ACT and REACT are in the cycle, really.

But there's good thinking here, reaching out for something important. Maybe action and reaction are two paired impulses at the heart of all things.

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Double Cycling: Action and Reaction

I've advocated thinking about our approach to setting goals as generally too short-term in outlook, and yes, one that generally lacks the self-reflection that leads to adaptation: paired action and reaction. But this is better characterized as two loops, not one.

All of our longer-term goals are not simple linear projects: they should involve major commitments on our part, both in pushing forward with activities associated with the activity -- like buying and digging holes to plant flowers, bushes, and trees and assessing progress against those means -- but in parallel reflecting on what has been learned from those activities, and adapting the action loop as a result.

Note that the reaction loop is not going back in time. I am simply characterizing it as counterclockwise to indicate it's not dedicated to taking the sorts of actions generally talked about in 'productivity' porn. Also, spinning in the opposite direction to the action loop indicates that it takes its own time: when you are reflecting (and self-reflecting) about the endeavor’s progress, you are not spending that time working on the top-level loop. They are rivalrous. And, of course, the reaction (or learning) loop is often disregarded, and in linear approaches, the time necessary for learning is squeezed out or concealed.

This distinction between the two loops -- and the two different kinds of work involved -- is similar to MIT's Dynamic Work Design. They distinguish between 'factory work' -- more or less the action loop above -- realized as serial tasks, and 'studio work' -- more or less the reaction loop -- involving reflection and adaptation. (In their work, they overemphasize the collaborative aspects of 'studio work' and don't really dig into self-reflection at the individual level.)

But I don't really want to use the manufacturing paradigm as the basis of a new framework. Instead, I will simply consider any long-term initiative critical enough to explicitly involve both action and reaction loops an 'endeavor' instead of a simple linear project, where the reflection -- if any -- is concealed between the lines.

Implementing Endeavors Instead of Projects

There is some overhead to actually trying to manage what's going on in an endeavor instead of a simple linear project. But the juice is worth the squeeze.

At its simplest form, instead of setting up a project in your work management tool of choice, create two subprojects under a parent project. Let's use a very simple tool: Dropbox Paper.

For simplicity, I propose that the name of the endeavor is something general, in this case Gardening, and the first, top-most work list is the list of actions, and the second, bottom-most, is the sequence of reactions.

Here's the gardening endeavor:

Gardening Endeavor

I created a Paper doc for the endeavor with two task lists. I've annotated the action list of simple tasks with some notes as I checked them off, and I synthesized those into a finding in the reaction list; namely, I need to do research about plants and tools before going shopping. Just a simple use case.

So, by implication, If I learn from my experience when returning to the garden center next time, I'd add an action task like 'research garden edger tool, and then buy a good one', or 'research shade tolerant native shrubs, and buy the right number for the shady side of the house'.

In this simple way, I can keep track of a set of activities undertaken toward

  1. the endeavor's end -- a successful, healthy garden
  2. insights arising from those activities -- captured here in comments
  3. adaptations to the endeavor as a whole based on synthesizing those insights into the endeavor as a whole.

When this is scaled up -- by complexity, size of teams, and number of activities -- more sophisticated implementations are likely to be needed, but they will still follow this three-part model of cyclic endeavoring.

Final Thoughts

Of course, people and organizations are involved in many endeavors at once, and there is spillover from one to another. For example, the insight derived from the Gardening endeavor -- 'do research in advance before buying materials' -- is a lesson that can be applied in almost any context. Yes, it's an overly simple example, but the point is made.

The question remains: where are such lessons captured and promulgated? There need to be other artifacts to retain such insights, an issue larger than can be treated here in this post. However, it's worth laying it out and returning to it later because a framework that doesn't include the means to retain and reuse ideas is likely to regress to the mean and slowly collapse into plain old linear project management.

There are also possibilities for other cross-endeavor relationships. For example, my Work Futures newsletter endeavor has been running for over ten years and has launched dozens of child endeavors. A good system for managing the state and process for endeavors should include one or more ways to track the relationships across endeavors.

The most important takeaway from this is perhaps mindset. We need to shift our thinking from linear productivity concepts to cyclic progressivity. As Sam Sifton said,

Time’s a flat circle, a record spinning, always and forever returning to its start.

But to return to the metaphor I used earlier, the airplane's propeller is spinning in a flat circle, forever returning to its start. That action is balanced by the flaps on the wings and tail, harnessing and redirecting the engine's power. But the two together pull the plane into the air, enabling us to set a course and see where it takes us, recalibrating to the wind, clouds, and rain. Action and reaction.

Let's go.

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