Paula Hendricks

Author ~:~ Writer ~:~ Book Designer ~:~ Book Producer

Progress is made in jumps not gradual increments

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I am struck by how we move — in jumps not smooth gradual progressions. For the last 6 months I’ve been reading geology books and in some of them the scientists talk about how the earth systems change in leaps – jumps – and that one of their concerns about climate changes is that the rest of us think somehow the warming will occur in small incremental gradual increments over a long period of time. And they believe the systems leap into new territory in much shorter time frames.

I picked up a book called the Black Swan and while I have not read it yet, I see from the flap that it talks about how the assumptions underlying our system models do not account well for sudden, unpredictable abrupt change. Just look at the recent financial crises to see this in action.

A few years back I worked on a knowledge management project where I interviewed people about how they really do their job and one group of people I talked to manage their work (budgets and allocation of people, equipment, time) using a system that did not allow for emergencies. No accommodation at all — and yet this group knew that at least 20% of their time and money was spent on emergencies over any given period of time — they just had no way of predicting which day or which week. But over a few months or a year, it was guaranteed a significant amount of resources would be allocated to the presently unknown, but their management tool was unable to allow for this.

Creativity is often a process whereby no apparent progress is made and then suddenly, a solution appears or a piece of writing flows or a series of photographs get taken. We talk of the muse being fickle, and I know that there are times I am fallow creatively and times I am fertile and I know deeply that my linear rational ways of thinking and doing are anathema to that process. We speak of leaps of faith.

On the TV the other night, I looked at the stock market graphs that TV commentators are so fond of — these sharp rises and falls — and they talked about how over time it was more a curve than these abrupt herky jerky movements. And a lightbulb went on.

We live in a world where things happen suddenly and dramatically all the time. Relationships end. You’re fired and didn’t see it coming. I change my technology in leaps — I’m ahead of the curve sometimes and then I get comfortable and don’t want any more change and my tools are fine and then I realize I’m behind the curve and leap forward.

And yet we want somehow to smooth this all out. I want to ride in a car that accelerates and slows down smoothly and not too fast (but not too slow either). We draw curves and lines through points on a graph and ignore the outliers. We look at trends. We think we need gradual change to be comfortable. Maybe we don’t.

Maybe it’s time to look at leaps, jumps, and suddenness. Maybe there’s some value in knee jerk reactions. Maybe we can look at the past but not use it slavishly to poorly predict the future. Wow. What could this mean? For all of us?

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