Progress is linear, right? The next version of product X is going to be better than the last version of product X. It’s going to have more features, AND fix all of those annoying bugs, AND it’s going to feel like it’s moving in the right direction. Same thing with scientific breakthroughs, reorgs, and all other forms of progress. The more we fix things, the better they get, right?

Well, not always. Samsung has released three new versions of its Galaxy S phone over the last 3 years and each one has received so-so feedback. Most movie sequels are bland rehashes of the hero’s first ventures or fail to capture that original magic (and some are tragic blunders). Windows 10 is free, but Windows 7 is still the dominant OS for PC users.

But, even when things DO move in the right direction, there are always trade-offs. More interesting are the unintended tradeoffs. Let’s talk through a few real world examples to illustrate how more progress can lead to more problems.

  1. LED Traffic Lights

MO PROGRESS: Save 80 to 90% on energy costs! Replace bulbs much less frequently!

MO PROBLEMS: Oops, they don’t melt snow like old-fashioned incandescent bulbs do.

GO BACK? No. There are some pretty straightforward solutions: angle the bulbs, install snow shields, tiny wipers, have them cleared manually.

PUT THAT PROBLEM IN CONTEXT: It turns out that not all incandescent bulbs melted the snow consistently – yellow lights weren’t lit long enough to have that effect.

  1. Electric cars

MO PROGRESS: No emissions! No pumping gas! A quiet and smooth ride.

MO PROBLEMS: Those engines are too quiet and are endangering pedestrians who don’t hear them coming.

GO BACK? No. There are other ways to alert pedestrians and fake car engine noise can be added.

PUT THAT PROBLEM IN CONTEXT: This one’s embarrassing – they’ve been using fake car engine noise for conventional cars too.

  1. Streaming Music

MO PROGRESS: Listen to any song you want at any time!

MO PROBLEMS: Changes the whole economic model – are artists getting their fair share? Who “owns” the music that you buy?

GO BACK? Maybe. I kind of like building up a music collection. And, vinyl is making a big comeback.

PUT THAT PROBLEM IN CONTEXT: The audio format history is long and more like a pendulum than straight progress. Did we make progress with each new format, or did we continually trade audio quality for portability?

I think of it this way (see diagram below): Vinyl to cassette: more portable (especially key for our noisy cars) and durable, lower audio quality. Cassette to CD: less portable, much higher audio quality. CD to MP3: extremely portable, lower audio quality. MP3 to streaming: whole new model.

2x2 quadrant audio quality vs. portability

The point is, we need to think of “progress” as something more complex than just a straight-line advance of products and ideas. Innovation goes in fits and starts. Sometimes the story is overhyped and sometimes the hype is real.

The examples in this blog were just those that first came to mind, but there are plenty of others. I’d love to hear some “Mo Progress Mo Problems” stories from you!