Habit #14: Systems Thinker Checks Results and Changes Actions If Needed: “Successive Approximation”

Page 2 of 3: Gaps and Plateaus

Habit Cards

When engaged in any kind of improvement or change process, paying attention to the gap between where you currently are and where you would like to be is critical. Efforts to shrink the gap can produce rapid, promising results and can also seem hopeless when progress is stymied.

Let’s look at an everyday example.

Well-being Example

The importance of getting and staying fit can have long-lasting benefits to health and wellness. Oftentimes, it is hard to get started, and for many, sustaining their efforts can be equally challenging. For those with ambitious goals, the gap between current fitness levels and the fitness goal (e.g. reduced body fat percentage, improved endurance, lower blood pressure) can be overwhelming.

When any of these indicators plateau short of the established goal, people can easily become discouraged. However, by using the successive approximation process, individuals will not view these plateaus as failures, but rather opportunities to assess and adjust their fitness plan, which will lead to a more attainable path to personal improvement and goal achievement.

Young people are often encouraged to set goals for themselves and work hard toward achievement of their desired outcomes.

Well-being Example School Example

In many schools that incorporate systems thinking approaches to teaching and learning, students are provided systems thinking strategies for goal setting and self-assessment.

The strategies help students focus on small chunks of measurable achievement with flexible time periods and available support. Each student develops individual goals that mark gradual but continuous improvement. The goals can be academic or can focus on student social and emotional well-being. In this sense, the students are partners in the documentation of their own progress measured by successive approximation strategies such as behavior-over-time graphs, as you’ll see in the following “Dragon Problem” example.


In addition, students are also taught to analyze and identify when progress is lacking or when dips in progress occur. They learn to reflect on their efforts and implement improvements to their actions to better reach their goal. In other words, they use successive approximation to deliver benefits. In this process, students become less dependent on teacher and parent monitoring. It is never too early for children to develop and adopt the Habit of checking results and changing actions when needed.

“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from failure as from his successes.”

— John Dewey, educational psychologist

Primary School Dragon Problems

Elementary school teacher Kathy Lohse wanted to build her students’ abilities to take on challenges and persist through the difficulties encountered when learning new skills. She used the term “Dragon Problem” to help children identify those things that they wanted to learn, but that they perceived to be too difficult or daunting.

“The term ‘Dragon Problem’ came from a book I was using with children that helped students solve problems through the acting out of stories. One of the stories concerned a dragon that had to overcome a challenge. The use of the behavior-over-time graphs (BOTGs) for overcoming challenges came up originally with the students analyzing how to tie shoes and what were the easy versus hard parts. That was the original ‘Dragon Problem.’ We did the BOTG as a group, and then a student worked the next day on his own BOTG because he didn’t agree with the class.”

— Kathy Lohse


In this example, more students became interested in identifying other “Dragon Problems” to tackle. Examples of some of their problems included rope jumping, rock wall climbing and soccer skills. Students, like Joaquin in the example BOTG to the right, used behavior-over-time graphs to analyze the steps necessary to successfully master their “Dragon Problems” and track progress. Joaquin chose rope jumping, and his graph shows how he analyzed each step and rated the perceived level of difficulty. He discovered that through practice, each step became easier.

The more he practiced the sequence he created, the easier it was for him to jump rope. BOTGs and successive approximation helped students slay their identified “Dragon Problem,” so that over time, the initial challenge became an accomplished skill. The successive approximation process is also used in day-to-day experiences — oftentimes, we use successive approximation without even realizing it, as it comes naturally to many people.

The following examples illustrate how common successive approximation is to all of us.

New Recipe

Many of us have favorite food products that become staples in weekly meal planning. Have you ever purchased ingredients to make something new that you have never tried before? Sometimes it’s a hit, and other times it’s disappointing, but the quest to try new things can oftentimes result in a new, delicious culinary discovery.

A New Sport or Hobby

No matter your age, the excitement of taking on a new sport or hobby requires a successive approximation approach. For example, a person learning to play golf will typically take lessons and practice on the driving range and putting green before playing nine holes for the first time. The scores for each round and subsequent earned handicap will help the new golfer track progress over time. Practice, practice and more practice, along with coaching and feedback, will help the developing golfer improve over time. As skill develops, so does appreciation for this new venture. The golfer will make a lot of mistakes. The benefit is learning how to avoid these mistakes in the future.

First Job or New Employment

Customer Support

Many young adults pursue a first job to earn extra cash to help pay for things like cell phones, college tuition and independent living expenses. Learning the supervisor’s expectations for the position, rules and procedures of the workplace and required skills are important steps of on-the-job learning. While new employees may not immediately or intuitively know how to complete the job tasks, it is important that they do their best as they learn. Experience grows and competence develops as new employees complete the probationary training period. Job experience helps young people learn what they like and dislike about certain occupations and those preferences inform future decisions about employment. Ultimately, the more work experience people have, the more knowledgeable and better equipped they will be to deliver benefits to a company and customers.