Understanding Progress

Progress is the heart of the progress economy. Progress seekers are attempting to make it and progress helpers (entities/ecosystems) are offering to help.

So what is progress? At a high level, we’ll say that it is:

progress: moving over time to a more desirable state

And, at a more detailed level, we’ll talk about progress being a state: progress sought. Comprising functional and non-functional elements, informed by context. And we progress from a start state to progress sought. Measured by progress achieved and progress potential.

Progress is made as a seeker applies their resources – skills and competence – within a series of activities. Each completed activity moves the seeker one step closer to their progress sought. Although that progress sought may evolve after each step due to availability of new information.

And we’ll discover there is a well-defined progress decision-making process that seekers use to determine whether to begin and continue attempting to progress. One where they regularly weigh up progress achieved, progress potential, and the hurdle of lack of resource. This is described in this separate article.

Once we have defined progress, then defining progress propositions, markets, value, and innovation become wonderfully easy and actionable. They build on, and out from, that:

  • Progress propositions are offers to help progress seekers make progress
  • Value is a judgement, at a point in time, and by progress seekers, of progress achieved and remaining progress potential against progress sought.
  • Markets are groups of seekers seeking sufficiently similar progress
  • Innovation is the creation and implementation of new offers to help seekers make progress and/or increase the rate of positive decisions to engage a proposition.

As you can see, it’s important for us to understand progress. And that is what this post is about. Which is why this definition is part of the foundation layer of our tooling.

Right, let’s get into some detail about progress.

Progress is both a verb and a noun

We see progress as both a verb and a noun.

Progress as a verb

Collins define the verb progress as:

to move over a period of time to a stronger, more advanced, or more desirable state


And in the progress economy all actors – individuals, organisations, departments etc – are constantly attempting to move to more desirable states. We’ll call these actors progress seekers. In other words, all progress seekers are attempting to make progress in all aspects of their life.

As such, progress is a process that seekers chose to begin and continue. One that is made up of mostly intangible activities.

Progress as a noun

When we consider progress as a noun, then we find that it represents a state. Comprising functional and non-functional elements, informed by a contextual element.

Progress comprises functional and non-functional elements, informed context
And is viewed in terms of progress sought, potential progress, and progress achieved

We’ll call our more desirable state progress sought. And the starting state we call progress origin. Though progress origin appears less important in our thinking. As the seeker attempts to progress, they regularly judge progress achieved and progress potential. Doing so uniquely and phenomenologically. That is to say each seeker’s judgement is their own. And is influenced by their lived and living experience.

But now we’re jumping ahead of ourselves. Let’s get back to building up our full definition of progress.

Defining Progress

Here’s the progress economy’s verb/noun definition:

Understanding progress: the definition of progress used in the progress economy
definition of progress used in the progress economy

Let’s look at each aspect of this definition.

Progress is moving to a more desirable state…

We’ll start our definition of progress based around the above dictionary definition.

Progress is moving over time to a more desirable state

Here we reassuringly see the dictionary definition shining through. Although we’ve dropped the ”stronger“ and “more advanced” parts. Both of those are, I believe, covered by “more desirable”.

And we’ll often refer to this desired state as progress sought when considered from the progress seeker’s perspective.

…through a process consisting of a series of activities…

A move over time implies that progress is a process. And processes consist of series of activities. Which is exactly how we continue our actionable definition.

Progress is a process, made up of a series of activities.

We use the word “activity” to indicate progress is actively made. And phrasing it as a “series of activities” emphasises this happens over time. Although we do not require activities occur sequentially, there is room for them to occur in parallel.

Someone needs to identify and structure these activities. And, in this discussion, that someone has to be the progress seeker since no-one else is involved.

Failure to identify all necessary activities, or not knowing how to structure them effectively, can lead the seeker to frustration. And this manifests as lowered perceptions of progress achieved and/or potential progress. As a result, a seeker may abandon a progress attempt.

Often these failures are because the seeker lacks the necessary skills and competence (resources). But we need to be careful. Some seekers may relish the challenge of figuring out the necessary activities and most effective structure.

However, when we look at progress propositions – an offer to assist a progress seeker in making progress – we’ll see that identifying and structuring activities is a benefit that a progress helper can provide.

…where activities are more or less intangible

Activities are more or less intangible. That’s to say they mostly act on things we cannot touch.

We can borrow Lovelock & Wirtz categorisation of service from Services Marketing to explore this. They categorise all service into four categories of processing: people, possession, mental stimulus and information.

Lovelock & Wirtz’s four categories of service (which we will repurpose as categories of progress)
Lovelock & Wirtz’s categories of service (which we will repurpose as categories of progress)

For now, let’s agree that service is an offer to help make progress. Therefore, progress itself must fall into those four categories.

Lovelock & Wirtz then go on to identify that half of their categories, namely mental stimulus and information processing, comprise intangible actions (activities in our terminology). When it comes to the other two categories – people and possession processing – some of their activities are also likely to be intangible.

Thus, we can posit that activities involves in progress are more or less intangible.

…and activities normally involve the application of seeker’s resources

As previously stated, the seeker engages in activities in order to progress. Now we’ll expand on that by saying that those activities normally involve the seeker applying resources they have to make that step of progress.

resources: an actor’s skills and competence

The resources – the skills and competence – a progress seeker typically brings to the activities are their time and knowledge. These are examples of operant resources.

operant resources – resources that need to act on other resources in order for progress to be made

Alves, Ferriera and Fernandes (2016) give us a wider list to consider “operant resources held by each individual may be:

  • physical – include sensory-motor endowment, energy, emotions and strength.
  • social – made up of both personal and cultural relationships
  • cultural – include specialised knowledge and skills, life expectancy and historic imagination

Additionally seekers may need to bring operand resources to an activity.

operand resource – resources that need to be acted upon in order for progress to be made

Resources in a world without progress propositions

However, in a world without progress propositions – offers to help make progress – a seeker’s ability to successfully progress can feel somewhat limited. Technically the following are not available:

  • education – where someone helps build skills and competence (I leave it as an academic question whether observation of others is a form of progress proposition), nor
  • goods – which freeze skills and competence for use elsewhere in time and/or place

So no handyman to learn how to hang a picture from. There is no drill that captures the skills and competence of making a hole to make a 3/4 inch hole in a wall. There is no wall plug that captures the skills and competence of keeping a picture hook securely in a specific wall in order to hang a picture.

As a progress seeker, you must discover (invent) the wall plug and drill – or alternative ways to hang a picture. And you must learn to be that handyman. It’s all about trial and error. Or the use of resources you have learned or created yourself in previous, possibly other, progress attempts.

There’s no-one to skill you up on activities and structure of them required to make progress.

Let’s now look at progress as a noun – and as a change between state.

Progress as a state: functional, non-functional, informed by context

Progress comprises three elements. It is a combination of functional and non-functional progress; informed by context.

Progress has three elements: functional, non-functional and contextual
Progress comprises functional and non-functional elements, informed context
And is viewed in terms of progress sought, potential progress, and progress achieved

Now we’ll take a look at these three elements.

Functional progress

Think about some progress you’re trying to achieve. Most likely, you’ll begin by considering the functional progress you seek. But there’s a risk you’ll describe this functional progress sought at too low an abstraction or include solutions in the description (don’t worry, you’ll be in good company if you do).

Consider the following two statements of progress sought:

  1. I need to drive my car 100km to another city to give a presentation
  2. I need to give a presentation in a city that is 100 kilometres away.

This first example is not abstract enough to be functional progress. It contains part of a solution – driving a car. Whereas the second example is better. There are many potential solutions. Driving is one, so is flying, taking a bus, Uber, attending virtually, teletransportation, etc…

The trap the first example falls into is myopic thinking (short-sightedness). Something Levitt describes in his 1975 paper ”Marketing Myopia”. And that Christensen references in “Marketing Malpractice”:

The great Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt used to tell his students, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” Every marketer we know agrees with Levitt’s insight. Yet these same people segment their markets by type of drill and by price point…

…the prevailing methods of segmentation that budding managers learn in business schools and then practice in the marketing departments of good companies are actually a key reason that new product innovation has become a gamble in which the odds of winning are horrifyingly low.

“Marketing malpractice” Christensen, C. M., Cook, S., Hall, T. Harvard Business Review (2005),

We open up the the solution space through being abstract. Which is particularly beneficial when we explore progress propositions.

But it would be a mistake to think seekers are only seeking functional progress. They are also seeking to make non-functional progress

Non functional progress

Lets consider again our functional progress sought example of giving a presentation in a city that is 100km away.

Non-functionally we might seek to accomplish it as inexpensively as possible, as comfortably as possible, as directly as possible, or while enjoying the view, etc. Inexpensively, pleasantly, directly, enjoying views – these are all non-functional aspects.

In fact there are numerous aspects of non functional progress – too many to list.

Fortunately, Almquist, Senior & Bloch’s (2016) ”The Elements of Value” identifies 30 ‘elements of value’. And we can repurpose the majority of those elements, as well as the hierarchy they created, to get an insight into typical aspects of non-functional progress.

Examples of non-functional progress (from Almquist, Senior & Bloch)
Examples of non-functional progress aspects

We change their original “functional” category to “practical”. And additionally remove four elements – organises, integrates, connects, and informs – because they are aspects of functional progress.

Understanding seeker’s non-funtional progress sought helps better understand their phenomenological start and continue decisions. And it helps us in the innovation space and progress propositions.

Last, but not least, we need to take account of the context that progress is being sought.

Contextual progress

Context informs us of constraints or provides extra information in which the progress attempt is being made.

We don’t usually expect context to change over time. Or for their to be an attempt to change it. But there’s no rule saying it can’t.

In our simplistic travel example, context might be that we are attempting this in rush hour, or on a public holiday, or you are a one car family with competing needs for the car.

Context helps us focus solution options for making progress. It also helps us in segmenting markets.

Basic, better, best description of progress sought

Our understanding of future desired state (progress sought) is best when we know all three elements of progress sought. It is weaker if we miss the contextual elements. And weaker still when we additionally miss the non-functional elements.

What does this mean? Well, now we can explore it through our simple example, showing the quality of progress sought in three situations.

qualityprogress elementsprogress sought
basic* functional* move myself 100km
better* functional
* non-functional
* move myself 100km
* as directly as I can
best* functional
* non-functional
* contextual
* move myself 100km
* as directly as I can
* during a morning rush hour

As you can see, the version with functional, non-functional and contextual progress is richer.

Progressing to A more desirable state

A state diagram is another way to visualise progress. We have a start and end state consisting of functional and non-functional progress, informed by contextual progress.

Progress as a change in state
Where a state holds the functional, non-functional and contextual elements of progress
Progress achieved and progress potential are judgements between starting and more desirable state (progress sought)

Generally we’ll assume that context doesn’t change over time of making progress. Though there’s no rule saying context cannot change over time, or that an outcome of progress is a change in context. And so, from a state perspective, the starting and ending contextual progress are the same. This is why we say the contextual progress informs.

We’ll also assume that the starting functional and non-functional progress elements are empty. Or better put, we start from a position of no progress.

Our more desired state is what we call progress sought. Though there are two other aspects the progress seeker judges – progress potential and progress achieved.

progress soughtThe individual progress seeker’s phenomenologically determined more desirable state.
progress potentialThe phenomenological determination by an individual seeker of the progress they believe can be made going forwards from a particular point in time.
progress achievedThe phenomenological determination by an individual seeker of the progress they have made by a particular point in time.
Table 1: The three types of progress seen and evaluated by the progress seeker

Let’s look at each in turn.

Progress sought

Progress sought is the “more desirable state” from our definition of progress. That is to say the progress a seeker is looking to make. And whilst we can think of the totality of progress a seeker is trying to make, it’s common for us to limit our scope to specific areas of progress. Nonetheless, we shall continue to refer to this sub-set as progress sought.

Interestingly, the concept of markets emerges from progress sought. Although this only becomes useful when considering progress propositions. Markets are groups of seekers that are seeking sufficiently similar progress (i.e. seeking a 1/4 inch hole, to quote from Levitt – and not a 1/4 inch drill).

We also observe there may be active and passive elements of progress sought. Where passive progress sought is that progress a seeker sees as nice to have. Sustainability/eco could perhaps fall into this category.

Additionally, external actors, such as governments, may enforce elements of progress sought that the seeker may not be seeking. For example, the safety of seatbelts in cars. Or external actors could support passive progress sought. An example here is the deposit scheme on plastic bottles in various countries to encourage recycling.

Progress achieved and potential

Periodically a seeker will make a judgement of how much progress they have made. As well as how much potential progress is remaining. These feed into the decision process a seeker undertakes to determine if to start and if to continue attempting to make progress.

Theoretically, each time the seeker makes these determinations then the amount of achieved progress plus potential progress (remaining) should meet the progress sought.

Simplistic view of the relationship between progress sought, achieved and potential
Simplistic view of the relationship between progress sought, achieved and potential

However, progress sought may evolve…

Progress sought may evolve during attempt to make progress

No plan survives contact with the enemy.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, 1871

Every activity performed in the course of making progress generates fresh information. Furthermore, because each activity takes time to complete, fresh external information may also become available.

And new information may cause the progress seeker to evolve their perception of progress. It can alter the progress they are seeking. Or how much achieved progress / potential progress they see.

This in turn changes can alter their decision to continue.

Progress is Phenomenologically and uniquely determined

You’ll have noticed all these flavours of progress talk about being uniquely and phenomenologically determined by the progress seeker. This comes from our underlying service dominant logic thinking. Which informs us:

Value is always uniquely and phenomenologically determined by the beneficiary

Foundation premise #10 of service dominant logic

And since we believe that value emerges as a seeker’s perspective of progress, we can really say:

(amount of) progress is always uniquely and phenomenologically determined by the progress seeker.

This is somewhat given when we talk about pure progress as there are no other parties involved. But we’ll see for progress propositions this also mostly holds with only a slight modification.

Let’s discuss this word “phenomenological” for a moment. It’s a bit of a mouthful, not in common usage, which we inherit from our underlying service-dominant logic.

How can we interpret it? The best way I can think of is to say it is two things:


a) lived experience – the ”baggage” we bring from past interactions and attempts to make wider progress

b) living experience – how we’re feeling today, how we’re expecting to experiencing this attempt to make progress, how we are experiencing it,…

It’s a word that wraps up the pickiness, quirks, beliefs etc of progress seekers – why one seeker sees progress whilst another sees less, and why the same seeker may judge different progress, and make different progress decisions, on different days.

And each seeker has different lived and living experience. Hence why progress is determined uniquely and phenomenologically. Again, when we come to look at progress propositions our challenge becomes finding propositions sufficient seekers will engage with.

So, that’s how we define the concept of progress in the progress economy. To complete the story we need to consider the progress seeker’s decision process whilst attempting to make progress. As well as how we ascertain what the progress is that progress seeker(s) are seeking.

Attempting to progress

So, based on the above, progress seekers apply their resources in a series of activities to attempt to progress to a progress sought state.

From that, we can form a view of how a progress seeker decides to start, and continue, making a progress attempt. In short they regularly balance judgements of progress against a hurdle of lack of resource.

The seeker’s decision to make progress balances their determination of progress with their determination of the hurdle of them lacking resource (skills and competence)

And seekers most likely make these decisions at the end of each activity that makes up the process of making progress. This decision process deserves its own article. Which I expand on in the progress decision process.

Insights into value

From the above discussion a (better) view of value forms.

We can say that value must have something to do with progress. There is nothing else in the progress economy. And that reaching a specific progress sought must be the achievement of full value. Therefore value emerges from a seeker’s unique and phenomenological judgements of progress potential and progress achieved.

We’re a little too early to talk about value-in-exchange, co-value generation and value-in-use. Those will have to wait until we have the context for them with progress propositions.

To complete our discussion, let’s address a question that may have occurred to you while reading. And even if it didn’t, it’s still good to ask. What is the relation to jobs to be done theory?

Relationship to jobs to be done theory(ies)

You may have come across Ulwick’s and/or Christensen’s job to be done theories. Common to both is the idea that customers do not buy goods or service. Rather, they seek a means of getting a job done.

And it’s relatively easy to draw a line between getting a job done and the progress economy’s making progress. Christensen says:

Successful innovations help consumers to solve problems—to make the progress they need to…

Know Your Customers’ “Jobs to Be Done”, HBR

And Christensen’s theory introduced me to the idea that has become contextual progress.

Ulwick mentions:

People want products and services that will help them get a job done better and/or more cheaply

What is jobs to be done,

The way I see it, in reflection, is that the progress economy thinking provides the foundation from which both job to be done theories can emerge. And using jobs to be done theories can help us tease out progress sought.

And the progress economy brings us more, as I’ll now summarise in the conclusion.

Wrapping up

The progress economy introduces a comprehensive view of progress. Both as a verb – a process consisting of a series of activities to move to a desired state over time. And as a noun – progress sought – with judgements made by the seeker of progress achieved and potential progress.

The progress economy’s definition of progress

We’ve also repositioned value as something that emerges from progress seeker’s phenomenological judgements of potential progress and progress achieved against progress sought. Noting that progress sought can evolve as a result of new information available to the seeker over time.

In a separate, but linked, article we’ve seen how a seeker attempts to make progress. Where we discover the progress decision process.

The progress attempt decision process

We identified that our current view of progress may be limiting. Seekers don’t have access to education and goods, since the are offers to help make progress from elsewhere.

And that the activities to make progress and their scheduling also need identifying by the seeker themselves. This may cause frustration and abandoned progress attempts. But identifying them may be an element of progress being sought. In short, progress seekers are quirky, picky, and see things phenomenologically (through lived and living experience).

Now that we’ve defined progress, it’s time to see how progress propositions, value, innovation, and markets fall out.

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