Progress as a State

Dr. Adam Tacy PhD, MBA avatar
What we’re thinking

Progress is a state – a snapshot comprising three elements, namely:

  • functional progress: the action
  • non-functional progress: performance, emotions, and feelings.
  • contextual progress: the constraints, when, where and how

Discovering and understanding all three elements is critical for understanding seeker’s desires, making progress, progress propositions, value, and pursuing successful innovation.

Failing to do so may lead to the next super-market self checkouts…

Progress as a state

Progress as a state is an important concept in the progress economy. Not least, we give a number of them names. We see progress as a move to a more desirable state. Seeker’s continuously judge what state they can potentially reach as well as how far they have reached during progress attempts. And helpers offer to help seekers reach particular states.

So, what exactly is a progress state?

It is a snapshot of progress containing three elements.

progress state: a snapshot of progress comprising functionalnon-functional and contextual elements.

These elements are the functional, non-functional, and contextual progress. Where all three elements are important to truly understand progress. As well as to innovating/crafting meaningful propositions.

Let’s jump straight in with an example of progress sought:

  • Functional – get to my office
  • Non-functional – as directly as possible
  • Contextual – office is 30km away; it’s rush hour

Functional progress may be the most obvious and simplest to describe. But adding non-functional progress, such as safely, or not being held up, gets deeper into seekers minds. Adding context gets even deeper helping us understand constraints within which the seeker is attempting to progress.

To delve deeper into this concept, let’s explore it using several versions of the above example progress sought state.

Improving views on progress

Consider the three examples of progress sought in the table below:

progress elementsprogress sought
basic1. functional1. get to my office
better1. functional
2. contextual
1. get to my office
2. office is 30km away; travel during morning rush hour
best1. functional
2. non-functional
3. contextual
1. get to my office
2. as directly as I can
3. office is 30km away; travel during morning rush hour
Some toy examples of progress sought state showing the improving quality (usability) for innovation

All three share the common functional progress sought of reaching the office. The “better” example introduces a non-functional element, while the “best” example adds the context of the distance to the office and we’ll be trying to progress in rush hour.

Yes, these are simplistic, but they serve us well to explore why its important to understand all three elements.

basic progress

A basic view of progress sought, containing only the functional view, like “get to my office” seems straightforward. But it presents an unfocussed solution space.

Numerous solutions come to mind, from walking to driving, to using a ride-share service, or using public transportation, etc. And creativity is unbounded. Teleportation or a light aircraft subscription service are also potential solutions.

It’s not clear any of these offerings will successfully attract progress seekers to engage or not. We need some more insight into progress sought. Let’s add some context.

better progress

Some offerings drop away once we add the context of how far away the office is. Walking, for example. Or cycling for a lot of seekers. The context that the progress will be attempted during rush hour might tilt the balance from private vehicles to public transport.

Of course, if we wrote the functional progress sought as “Get to my office 30km away” these would drop away above. But then we’ve polluted functional progress with a constraint (context).

Let’s see what happens when we add some non-functional progress sought.

best progress

By understanding that progress sought needs to be as direct as possible gives us more insight. We might find the train station is a couple of bus rides away so the seeker needs to make 2 changes.

Now public transport looks less of a successful offering. Instead, driving looks more viable, despite the context of rush hour traffic.

Want to know why your last innovation wasn’t successful? It most likely hadn’t considered all three elements of progress sought. Missing out on these twist and turns that even our toy example brings to life.

Now we’ll dig into each element in more detail.

Functional progress

We capture the “action” part of progress as the functional element. This is the learn a language, entertain myself, travel somewhere, fix something part.

functional progress: the action element of progress

To identify it we can observe or question seekers – what are you trying to do? And here we start to see comparisons to jobs-to-be-done thinking.

We can additionally leverage a framework introduced by Lovelock & Wirtz, originally designed to categorise service (which in the progress economy is the act of helping others progress).

Their framework categorises service into four distinct processing areas:

  • people
  • possessions
  • mental stimuli
  • information

With slight adjustments to the terminology, we arrive at the following:

processing category description
peopleprogress related to individuals’ bodies, such as achieving physical fitness, enhancing appearance, improving health (medical services), and more.
possessionprogress concerning individuals’ possessions, encompassing activities like transporting, recycling, storing, selling, renting, maintaining, fixing, and DIY tasks.
mental stimulusprogress involving individuals’ minds, which includes teaching, training, attending theatrical performances, and engaging with content like streaming services, podcasts, and Netflix.
informationprogress tied to intangible resources, such as word processing, using virtual assistants, leveraging generative AI, and banking services.
Lovelock & Wirtz Service categories (adapted for progress economy)

Once you identify a category of processing seekers are trying to make, or you’re trying to help with, you can look at similar services (in and outside your market/industry) to see what can be carried.

These categories provide a straightforward framework for systematically exploring progress sought.

Non-functional progress

Capturing performance and emotional aspects of progress is the role of the non-functional element. Now we’re talking feelings of accomplishment, speed, safety, and enjoyment related to a specific functional progress.

non-functional progress: performance, emotions, feelings, etc, element of progress.

Identifying non-functional progress can be challenging. Often it requires an interrogative approach as they are not easily observable. Additionally, there are almost limitless types of non-functional progress.

We can, though, repurpose a framework from Almquist’s article, “The Elements of Value” to help consider common components of non-functional progress.

Examples of non-functional progress sought

It covers practical aspect such as saving time (a resource that is often in short supply) and reducing risks and effort required from seeker (which hints at a need for relieving propositions). As we climb the hierarchy we find layers of emotions, life changing and social impact.

Although 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. And add “gain skills & knowledge”.

We can explore components of this framework using Blue Ocean Strategy‘s strategy canvas to develop new propositions. Looking to add, remove, increase or reduce components in mainstream market offerings. For example, can we simplify today’s existing propositions, or increase the time-savings possible; maybe we can reduce anxiety; or perhaps we reduce time-savings whilst increasing self-actualisation.

Is it non-functional or functional?

We say “related to functional progress” as sometimes performance, emotions, feelings etc can be the functional progress sought. Compare the following:

  • Functional: move from A to B
  • Non-functional: safely
  • Contextual: on a mountain hike
  • Functional: be safe
  • Non-functional: simply
  • Contextual: on a mountain hike

It’s a subtle difference but drives different offerings.

Impact of misidentifying non-functional progress

Failure to identify, or misinterpreting, non-functional progress can lead to innovation mishaps.

Take, for instance, when self-service checkouts in supermarkets were introduced. I’m sure the supermarkets will claim it was to help shoppers looking to save time/avoid queues. It doesn’t hurt that they reduce staffing needs and costs – no wonder mass conversions from manned to self-checkouts were done!

But are these self-checkouts a customer success? Well, research suggests that self-checkouts may not be faster than regular checkouts

Despite what grocery stores and kiosk manufacturers claim, research shows self-checkouts aren’t actually any faster than a regular checkout line, Andrews says. “It only feels like it because your time is occupied doing tasks, rather than paying attention to each second ticking away.”

The Guardian (2022) “Unexpected item’: how self-checkouts failed to live up to their promise
quoting Andrews C.K. (2020) “The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy”, Lexington Books.

Let’s look at this from a progress perspective. And the answer relies on the understanding both contextual and non-functional elements.

Some customers, especially those with only a few items and in a hurry, may find self-checkouts beneficial. Who wants to queue behind several weekly shoppers? Of course, this context could (was) solved by check-out lines for “10 items or less”.

Analysing self-checkouts against the non-functional progress hierarchy reveals at least five components self-checkouts do not help with. Firstly, they do not simplify – as shoppers we are not trained on them and the interface is less than obvious. They increase effort and hassles, rather than reduce. And they increase risk to the shopper due to potential scanning errors.

Finally, the system seemingly randomly shouts out “shoplifter” (well “unexpected item in bagging area” which we know means shoplifter), there’s limited help if things go wrong, and stores increasing camera surveillance as well as putting in barriers you must scan receipts to get through do nothing to reduce anxiety,

It’s not surprising we start to hear the likes of below:

Last week, due to continuing customer demand, the north of England supermarket chain announced its plan to replace self-service tills with human cashiers. It turns out that its customers – like many of us – prefer the problem-solving capacity of a human mind to being bossed around by a machine.

The Guardian, November 2023
The paradox of non-functional

Adam Smith wrote in Wealth of Nations:

It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy…

Adam Smith () “The Wealth Of Nations”, Book IV Chapter II, pp. 456-7, paras. 11-12.

From a pure economic value-in-exchange way of thinking, this is surely true. What non-functional progress tells us is that this is not necessarily correct. Who makes their own bread? Perhaps even cultivating a sough-dough culture for that purpose? Or maybe you brew your own beer/wine; make your own clothes etc? The economics of doing so might be in your favour; but I would bet you don’t do it because it is marginally cheaper. You do it because your non-functional progress sought is a sense of self achievement.

Contextual progress

As Christensen says about jobs (which we can link to progress):

A job can only be defined – and a successful solution created – relative to the specific context in which it arises

Christensen, C (2016) “Competing against luck

In the progress economy we capture this as contextual progress. It shows the when, how, and where progress occurs and often informs us of other constraints.

contextual progress: information related to when/how/where the progress happens (can often be constraints).

Here again we can turn to the self checkout in supermarkets. In some contexts they can be great. A wet Wednesday lunchtime when you are in a rush and only have a couple of items for example. But maybe less so when doing the weekly shop. If supermarkets are really focussed on helping seekers in a rush, then a small number of self-checkouts might be sensible. Why have they created farms of them? I’d suspect its about their cost savings, not you as a shopper.

Context also highlights constraints. Back to our earlier transport example…having, or not having, a driving licence is a valid constraint on we could have included. That shapes the range of offerings that are useful to progress seekers.

There is a peculiarity about contextual progress. We don’t expect it to change over time during progress (see progress as a verb).

Relating to value

Maximum value emerges for a seeker upon reaching their progress sought. By not understanding progress through all three elements there’s a real risk that maximum value never emerges.

That is to say a seeker will judge the progress offered by our progress proposition(s) as sub-optimal compared to their progress sought.

The fuller view of progress state, particularly for progress origin and progress sought, offers a valuable tool for market segmentation. Traditional methods like product features or demographics have limitations.

Relating to innovation

Innovation is all about improving progress. Like with relation to value, we need to fully understand all elements of progress in order to better innovate. We saw this above in the supermarket example.

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