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The Linear Thinker’s Guide to Forward Progress

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

I am a linear thinker.

And very little in the world progresses linearly.

And that’s really hard for me.

And that recognition and acknowledgement has been a serious breakthrough for me as a professional and as a person.

In the fifth chapter of Hidden Potential, titled “Getting Unstuck: The Roundabout Path to Forward Progress,” Adam Grant discusses the various paths we can take to move forward, including going backwards, starting over, and digressing. (It’s almost as if Adam was talking directly to me…)

Throughout the chapter, he makes the case that in order to experience true forward progress, we need to be willing to go off course, take a different path, endure the ups and downs, and trust the process. For many leaders, this is a really challenging idea to grasp – Move backwards? Take a step back? Slow down? Are you kidding me?!?!

Grant shares, “Truth is that we’re often afraid to go backward. We see slowing down as losing ground, backing up as giving up, and rerouting as veering off course. We worry that when we step back, we’ll lose our footing altogether. This means we stay exactly where we are – steady but stuck. We need to embrace the discomfort of getting lost.”

For linear thinkers like me (and you?) this is really hard to embrace (discomfort…what?), especially when we aren’t patient and want progress now (really, yesterday, but we’ll settle for now).

Grant shares, “Getting discouraged is a common obstacle after turning around. That’s because going backward doesn’t always lead directly to a new peak. Sometimes you end up stuck, and it’s not because you’re on the wrong path. It’s because your path is taking you in long circles to the top, and you can’t even tell that you’re gaining ground. You’re not seeing enough progress to maintain your motivation.”

When this happens, and we're not seeing progress, we have to focus on the process and what we're trying to accomplish to keep us going -- backward pieces and all.

When I work with clients, I try to strike a balance between a thought-out and international strategy and plan for execution and the space to iterate and pivot and make significant changes as needed. I almost always start with “stepping back” so that we have true clarity on what we’re trying to accomplish and why before we move forward with the “how.” We carefully map out a very intentional process with lots of opportunities for reflection and shifting and evaluation (and stepping back some more) that probably takes quite a bit of time before we see any impact. And I promise that it’s a solid path to the top...we just might go in circles for a bit or seem to go backwards before we get there.

Because real growth is messy. Doing important things is messy. Effecting actual change is messy.

Whether it’s shifting culture or aligning an educational philosophy or developing as a leader and a person, the path is not linear. And we need to be okay with that in order to really get to the good stuff.

And there are some things we can do to make it just a little bit easier for everyone involved. We’ll get through this together, and here’s how:

Embrace the discomfort from the start.

Be real with yourself before you bring anything to your team. Fully lean into what might be and how that might look. Mentally prepare for the process, the journey.

Be real with your team about the process.

Normalize for everyone involved the various paths that forward progress can take – maybe you’ll take a step back or start over all together, maybe you’ll change course, maybe you’ll engage a digression to gain momentum. Set the tone before you even begin that these are all pieces of the process and should be embraced (and celebrated) for the role they play in the forward progress.

Build in buffer time to your timeline (and buffer money into the budget).

Knowing that forward progress isn’t fully linear, be reasonable with the timeline. Leave space for re-evaluation and pivoting and taking a step back. Build in budget for a second version or an extra meeting. Set realistic expectations, and then be extra generous on top of that. Everyone is happy if the project is completed early/under budget. No one is happy when things fall on the other side.

Appreciate the journey.

I know we’re super focused on achieving the goal, and, sometimes, the best part is the journey – the most impactful learnings, the most memorable moments, the pieces that will be remembered by those involved and set the stage for whatever comes next. Consider the process just as, if not more, important than the actual destination.

Give yourself grace.

Forward progress is hard. There are absolutely (thankfully) days when you feel like you’re on the right path, moving full steam ahead. And then there are days when you question everything. And that doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong. It just means that you are a human being operating in a non-linear world. You're good!

From one linear thinker to another, let me assure you that it’s going to be okay. Just trust the process!

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