We consider a generic algorithmic paradigm that we call progressive exploration, which can be used to develop simple and efficient parameterized graph algorithms. We identify two model-theoretic properties that lead to efficient progressive algorithms, namely variants of the Helly property and stability. We demonstrate our approach by giving linear-time fixed-parameter algorithms for the distance-r dominating set problem (parameterized by the solution size) in a wide variety of restricted graph classes, such as powers of nowhere dense classes, map graphs, and (for $r=1$) biclique-free graphs. Similarly, for the distance-r independent set problem the technique can be used to give a linear-time fixed-parameter algorithm on any nowhere dense class. Despite the simplicity of the method, in several cases our results extend known boundaries of tractability for the considered problems and improve the best known running times.