A strategy for making progress

Often in a work environment I find I’m faced with difficult problems, and while I manage to find ways to move forward, I do this without knowing exactly what the end state should look like.

An example of such a problem might be agreeing the best process for something within a team, or a company. It’s something that will need to satisfy several factors, and might require bringing in new skills, or maybe making compromises. It’s difficult to know what the ideal process might be, especially given that any real situation is complex, and not all factors will be known at the start.

But there is a way to deal with this, and it’s a simple strategy: one step at a time. We don’t need to know all the details of the end state if all we want to do is move forward and make some improvements. The very act of making the next step is bound to reveal new information about our reality, will likely cause us to adjust our course, and will open up new possibilities for the subsequent step… and so we repeat that.

Some might recognise this as analogous to agile development: one step at a time, always improving what we have. In that scenario we might have a complete “backlog”—a list of things we want to achieve—which may look like a known end state, but those with a bit of experience know that things always change along the way.

This is also very similar to the idea behind Gerben Wierda’s “Chess and the Art of Enterprises Architecture”. The idea is that the end state of an enterprise’s large scale architecture cannot really be assumed in advance, despite what the experts say. Things will always change, and new information will always be revealed. He likes the required approach to a game of chess—always making a move to strengthen and advance our position in a constantly moving world, where the exact winning position is not known in advance.

Some people find it frustrating to move forward without having a complete plan or a detailed known end state. But the alternative is “analysis paralysis”, where we feel we cannot make the first move until we know the complete plan… which is likely to never happen with any real accuracy.

Photo by Tim Seyfi