The Progress Principle — or “how to kill a company”

The Progress Principle -- or "how to kill a company"

Throughout my career, I’ve had the luxury of being able to peek into well over a hundred companies.

Some of these peeks were quite superficial, while others were quite prolonged and intimate. As a product/applied behavioral science consultant, I would often join teams for a period—to help them solve their hardest problems.

Over time, I started to notice patterns.

I started to notice what differentiated high-functioning organizations from those that seemed destined to fail.

I’m not going to be able to cover this entire topic in one short email, but I want to give you a piece of cautionary advice: what NOT to do.

So much of life is about knowing what *not* to do.

As Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner, says:

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Which brings us to today’s lesson: Nothing is more depressing than a treadmill.

Or, stated differently: Nothing is more demotivating than wasted work.

I can remember one company (which shall go unnamed) that I worked with for a while.

Every couple of weeks the direction would change.

Like clockwork, an emergency meeting would be called. We’d all enter the room and sit around an IKEA conference table.

Strong opinions would fly. Philosophical ramblings would occur. Uncomfortable periods of silence and staring would punctuate the discussions.

By the end of these day (or two) long re-alignments, we’d agree on a common objective, and move back into out preferred mode of working: heads down hackin’.

We loved designing and developing digital products. We loved seeing our vague ideas crystallize into specific plans… and then turn into working contraptions.

Each day we watched as our creation got a bit more real.

One day, we’d add a whole new screen to the app. The next day we’d refine the style on the sign-up flow.

We were moving forward. We could SEE it. Feel it.

Which is why the re-alignments hurt so much.

Suddenly, everything would come screeching to a halt. The direction would shift. Our old work, the stuff we had just toiled over for the last couple of weeks, would be mostly discarded.

The breakthrough we had, and celebrated, at 9:17PM on a Tuesday would return to the digital ether—RIP.

After a few of these direction changes, the team was zapped. Exhausted…


Our spirits had been broken.

At the time, I was quite into behaviorism and saw what had happened through that lens. From my point of view, we had consistently been punished for doing hard work. Instead of having our results rewarded and celebrated, we were told that we had been going in the wrong direction and our efforts were thrown out.

It’s no wonder that we started to become less interested in the project. Our efforts never led to anything positive, after all.

At the end of it all, we were in a state of learned helplessness. Apathetic.

It’s no surprise that many members of that team ended up leaving. They had to escape the situation to get their mojo back.

In the years after this project, I’ve always been curious in workplace psychology, and have looked for other concepts to explain what I witnessed. That’s why I was delighted to find Teresa Amabile’s work on the “Progress Principle”.

As she explains it:

“Our hunt for inner work life triggers led us to the progress principle. When we compared our research participants’ best and worst days (based on their overall mood, specific emotions, and motivation levels), we found that the most common event triggering a “best day” was any progress in the work by the individual or the team. The most common event triggering a “worst day” was a setback.”


She wrote a whole book around this concept. But I think it’s pretty simple.

People thrive off momentum. They want to keep growing and becoming better.

If you’re not growing, you’re dying.

This goes deep–it’s human nature. Our brains aren’t stupid. When they see us toiling away, day after day, and getting nowhere… they don’t let us continue our madness for too long. They fight back. They make us depressed. They shut us down. “This isn’t working! Stop!” 

So you can either run your company to go in-line with human nature, or you can go against it… but I know who I’ll be betting on.

More on this soon.

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