Behavioral Progress Traps


May 13, 2011

The concept of a progress trap embellishes the idea of unintended consequences. A 2004 book by Ronald Wright attracted attention to the phrase “progress trap,” so that today a Google search yields a variety of examples. All demonstrate human inability to avert long-term consequences of actions that begin as a boon to mankind. Conditions change, or an idea is carried to excess. The boon turns sour, maybe even perilous.

Imagine New York City or Los Angeles going for a month without electricity or gasoline. A century ago these necessities were “luxuries.” Fallback systems would have assured survival, but as confidence grew, we kicked away our fallbacks. If we can no longer revert to a prior condition easily, and if we build in no other countermeasures, high tech or low tech, we’re flirting with potential progress traps.

The Fukushima Nuclear Plant is a recent example of this classic progress trap. For a week or so, this hotbed of radiation was cut off from its normal support systems: no access by road and no electricity from any external source. In this case, unintended consequences hit suddenly and dramatically, riveting world attention. When everything is going hunky-dory, catastrophes in waiting are hard for us to psychologically anticipate. Slowly creeping system degradation may be even harder to recognize.

Averting progress traps will take more foresight than 20th century business logic could muster. Potential Armageddon scenarios are a long list, too long and too involved for most of us to heed, so the challenge of Compression Thinking is to reduce resource use, cutting these scenarios to more manageable scope. Drastically cutting resource use is a very tough objective, but simple; therefore it is less likely to snarl in complexity, and maybe its own unintended consequences.

Progress traps also describe business processes too rigid and too specialized to adapt to change. Some famous names zapped by organizational rigidity include DEC, Kodak, GM, and IBM (with its PC). These progress traps led to financial shrinkage, but not physical disaster. However, if our entire industrial society is a big progress trap, developing organizational agility to cope with rapid change would seem wise.

But organizing for rapid change requires coping with the most devious of progress traps, our own mental and psychological limits. Linking a big global goal to local and practical ones is a big stretch. We must learn to better sense the physical consequences of our actions, now and in the future. We must even question whether achievements that we think represent success will continue to do so. Doing all that is humbling, both for leaders and for those led.

Daunting as this seems, the Compression Institute is experimenting with how real people, in real work organizations, can learn how to make this transition without going financially broke during the transition. Stay tuned.

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