1.8 Progress Cycle

The ten keys to understanding the adaptive loop by which positions are advanced.

Art of War Quote: 

"End and yet return to start."
Sun Tzu's The Art of War 5:2:7 (literal translation of Chinese characters).

Perspective: 

Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently." Henry Ford

General Principle: 

Only a continuous loop of adapting to situations advances positions.

Situation: 

Competitive processes are not linear. Production processes are linear. They convert raw materials step by step into a finished product. At the end of a production process, the product is finished. A linear process runs in one direction. The problem is that we are only trained in linear thinking so we expect competitive processes to be linear, but they are not. They are cyclic. They continually loop back upon themselves, reincorporating feedback from the environment into our next choice of actions. Their processes are never finished. They have no true end point. Whether successful or not, each advance requires another advance. The process is always a loop. Every advance brings us back to the beginning where we start working on our next advance.

Opportunity: 

Our opportunity is to embrace the loopy nature of strategy. This nature means that, though we never reach end, we also can never truly fail. Each loop, whether it succeeds or fails, is a learning experience. Even if we fail to make the move we attempted, we still improve our position by learning more about our position and situation.

Key Methods: 

  1. The adaptive loop is constant reaction to objective and subjective conditions in the environment. We take in information from the environment, make decisions, take actions, and establish positions. In the next cycle of the loop, we again adjust our information, decisions, actions and positions. In the first two stages, we work with subjective information, in the last two stages, with physical matters following the subjective and objecting nature of positions (1.2 Subobjective Positions).
  2. The adaptive loop is a two-part cycle of expansion and contraction. Like a beating heart or breathing, in half of the cycle we reach out to gather broadly from the environment then we narrow our focus by making decisions. We then open ourselves to events by taking action, then we narrow our focus again to establish a position. We can think of the expansion stage as the destruction of feeding off the environment and the contraction stage as the creation of something new in the environment (1.8.1 Creation and Destruction).
  3. We call the adaptive loop the Progress Cycle because its only purpose is advancing a position. In its simplest form, we describe the adaptive loop as Listen>Aim>Move>Claim following the terms we developed in our most general work, The Golden Key to Strategy. This short form is both easy to remember and easily applicable to a wide variety of areas. In The Play Book itself, we use a more sophisticated and detailed description of this cycle. This form was first developed in our work, 9 Formulas for Business Success. In this form, understanding the nature of competitive positions sits at the center at the First Formula. The cycle itself is represented by the other formulas, breaking down Listen>Aim>Move>Claim into more detail: Listening to gather information to see positions more clearly (2.0 Developing Perspective).
  4. The Progress Cycle starts with listening to put together a big picture to see openings. This is where we reach out into the environment. We open ourselves to the nature of the situation with the specific goal of seeing where we need to move (3.0 Identifying Opportunities).
  5. The Progress Cycle requires aiming at only the opportunities that are the most likely to be successful. Unlike the productive moves of linear planning, we do not know exactly what will happen in any competitive move. Because our resources are limited, we must prioritize the opportunities that we explore, choosing those that are the most likely to be successful. (4.0 Leveraging Probability).
  6. The Progress Cycle then aims at minimizing our mistakes. To explore new areas more successfully, we are going to make mistakes because success is only a probability. Many attempts will fail. We must learn how to handle those failures so they do not eliminate future success. (5.0 Minimizing Mistakes).
  7. The Progress Cycle then acts, moving in standard ways to meet the challenges of the opportunity. This is the first component of the move part of the cycle. It is expansive, since our actions must move out of areas we control into new areas. In those areas, we must respond to situations in the ways that have proven to be the most effective in the past (6.0 Situation Response).
  8. The Progress Cycle completes moves through creativity. While standard responses help us meet the challenges of the situation, we create the momentum we need to succeed only through creativity. This is the focusing stage of the moving cycle (7.0 Creating Momentum).
  9. The Progress Cycle wins rewards by claiming them. Sun Tzu teaches that the rewards of a position must be claimed. This expansion stage again reaches out into the environment, in this case, for the benefits of the position to which we have moved (8.0 Winning Rewards).
  10. The Progress Cycle claims rewards in order to defend our gains. This is the concentration stage, where we use the productivity of a position to secure it (9.0 Using Vulnerability).

Illustration: 

  1. The adaptive loop is constant reaction to objective and subjective conditions in the environment. None of us are inventing this cycle. It exists in nature. Our job as scientists is simply to describe it so that people can recognize what is happening and use this knowledge for their own purposes. Once we understand the adaptive loop, we easily recognize its use in every form of competition.  
  2. The adaptive loop is a two-part cycle of expansion and contraction. The cycle is a feedback loop, continuously correcting our course as we navigate the environment. This cycle is scalable. For example, in sales, the large scale loop is often described as "qualification," "presentation," "overcoming objections," and "closing." Properly understood, this maps directly to Sun Tzu's description of "to learn," "to aim," "to march," and "to form."
  3. We call the adaptive loop the Progress Cycle because its only purpose is advancing a position. Each "step" of the loop has within it smaller feedback loops. In military competition, recognizing the adaptive loop is a matter of life and death. 2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu in The Art of War described the cycle most generally as "to learn," "to see," "to march," and "to form." As a general, his focus was on the large scale movement of troops that took days or weeks. In other eras where different weapons and actions come into play, strategists always see the complete cycle, but focused on different parts. In the 20th century, Col. John Boyd, saw the first part of the cycle as more important, He described the whole cycle as "to observe," "to orient," "to decide," and "to act," the OODA loop. As a fighter pilot, his interest was on loops that lasted a few seconds.
  4. The Progress Cycle starts with listening to put together a big picture to see openings. For example, when we are in a period of gathering information, we are still acting, asking questions.
  5. The Progress Cycle requires aiming at only the opportunities that are the most likely to be successful. There are hundreds of other competitive arenas where the adaptive loop is described in the specific language of the profession or the activity. Product design, political campaigns, military campaigns, sports events, and every other field in which people endeavor to improve their position has their own language for describing their version of the adaptive loop.
  6. The Progress Cycle then aims at minimizing our mistakes. In military battles, we must preserve our army. In sports contests, we must keep the score close. In product design, we cannot create products that are too expensive to build. 
  7. The Progress Cycle then acts, moving in standard ways to meet the challenges of the opportunity. Every competitive arena has its own standard methods for dealing with different situations, but those methods are standards because they usually work.
  8. The Progress Cycle completes moves through creativity. Those who succeed in every competitive arena are those that go beyond the standard to invent new responses. These responses are not merely superior execution of what is expected but a change from what is expected that creates surprise.
  9. The Progress Cycle wins rewards by claiming them. These feedback loops can take weeks or months or even years. For example, in designing a new product and bringing it to market. But within these long loops are many little loops, some of which last only a few seconds. The cycle is only complete when the reward or benefit of the move is converted from potential to reality. Money is made. Opponents surrender the field. 
  10. The Progress Cycle claims rewards in order to defend our gains. When we win reward, we set up a reason for others to want to take them from us. We now have a position to defend, so we must consider our vulnerabilities. Defending a position is easier than winning it, but it cannot be over looked. This defense, however, is also the basis for a new cycle of advancing our position. 

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