• 06 Sep 2011
  • Research & Ideas

How Small Wins Unleash Creativity

In their new book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, authors Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer discuss how even seemingly small steps forward on a project can make huge differences in employees' emotional and intellectual well-being. Amabile talks about the main findings of the book. Plus: book excerpt. Key concepts include:
  • Of all the factors that induce creativity, productivity, collegiality, and commitment among employees, the single most important one is a sense of making progress on meaningful work.
  • Seemingly small signs of progress will induce huge positive effects on employees' psyches. On the other hand, seemingly small setbacks will induce huge negative effects.
  • The catalysts that induce progress include setting clear goals; allowing autonomy; providing resources; giving enough time-but not too much; offering help with the work; learning from both problems and successes; and allowing ideas to flow.
by Carmen Nobel

All good managers understand the importance of making sure that every member of a team feels personally motivated and necessary throughout the workday, lest their work should stagnate and suffer. But what's the key to igniting creativity, joy, trust, and productivity among your employees? According to recent research, the single most important factor is simply a sense of making progress on meaningful work. But creating an environment that fosters progress takes some careful effort.

In their new book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, authors Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer discuss how even seemingly humdrum events can make huge differences in employees' emotional and intellectual well-being.

"There's no reason, no matter how resource-constrained an organization is, why managers can't help employees see the meaning in their work," says Amabile, a professor in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School. (Kramer, a developmental psychologist, is her husband.)

To prepare for the book, Amabile and Kramer collected confidential, personal stories from 238 white-collar employees at seven companies in a variety of industries. Each worker kept a daily diary during the course of a project, answering open-ended questions such as, "Briefly describe one event from today that stands out in your mind."

Each diary lasted the length of the project—sometimes as long as nine months. The researchers then analyzed the data, totaling some 12,000 daily diaries, looking for commonalities that influenced "inner work life," which the book defines as "the confluence of perceptions, emotions, and motivations that individuals experience as they react to and make sense of the events of their workday." Tangible incentives—salaries and bonuses—barely registered in the diaries. But the subject of progress, or lack thereof, loomed large. More importantly, diary entries that reported work progress often showed an inner work life surge, which, in turn, increased the likelihood of creative productivity.

"We found that of all the events that characterized the best inner work life days, by far the most prominent was making progress," Amabile says. "And of all the events that characterized the worst days, by far the most prominent was setbacks—feeling like you've lost ground on a project. As a pair, progress and setbacks are the main differentiators of the best and worst days."

Small Wins

Unfortunately, the researchers found that the negative effect of setbacks was more powerful than the positive effect of progress on employees' psyches. In fact, the effect of setbacks was two to three times stronger.

"That's a common finding in psychology—that negative events and negative things tend to get people's attention more and tend to have a stronger impact on people's feelings," Amabile explains.

But fortunately, seemingly minor victories turned out to be nearly as effective as major breakthroughs when it came to enhancing employees' inner work lives and, therefore, inducing their passion and creativity. The book refers to these as "small wins."

"We found that 28 percent of small events of all kinds had a major impact on inner work life," Amabile says. "This is good news! Big breakthroughs at work are really rare. But small wins are something people can experience pretty regularly if the work is chunked down to manageable pieces. This suggests that you really do have to sweat the small stuff."

Catalysts And Nourishers

In addition to studying the effect of progress, the researchers analyzed the workday diaries to determine the factors that facilitated progress: catalysts (events that helped a project move forward) and "nourishers" (interpersonal interactions that lifted people's spirits). They also analyzed the negative forms: inhibitors (events that induced setbacks) and toxins (interpersonal interactions that served to undermine employees' spirits.)

Using analyses of stories in the diaries, the book outlines seven major catalysts for progress:

  1. Setting clear goals. "People have to understand what they're doing and why," Amabile says, adding that it's important that the goals be reachable in a realistic time frame-owing to the idea of small wins.

    "So, for instance, rather than having the sole goal be to cure cancer, if you can chunk that down to the goal of understanding the mechanism that can block a particular type of lung cancer cell, you're setting up a win that people can experience in a realistic time frame even though they'll have some setbacks along the way," she says. "That's more effective than saying, 'We're not going to feel good at all until we cure cancer.'"

    (Shifting goals constantly, on the other hand, would be an inhibitor. Imagine a meeting at which the leader says something to the effect of, "Do this because I said so, and never mind that I said the exact opposite last week.")
  2. Allowing autonomy. "People need to know what goal they're trying to reach, but they have to have autonomy in order to get there," Amabile says. "It's a delicate balance. You do want to make sure that people understand what their mission is, but you don't want to micromanage them. If you do, their creative thinking shuts down, and you lose the value of their unique talents, expertise, and perspectives."
  3. Providing resources. This doesn't mean spoiling employees with fancy weekend retreats and unnecessary cutting-edge gadgets, but rather realizing that a significant project will always require a significant investment in materials and personnel. "There are some managers who believe that if you keep projects resource-poor, it will enhance creativity," Amabile says. "But that just makes the employees use their creativity to find resources, which takes their creativity away from the project."
  4. Giving enough time—but not too much—to complete a project. Amabile explains that deadlines are important, but only if employees understand how the deadline benefits the mission. An occasional weekend of cramming for an unexpected Monday deadline is OK if it means the chance to secure a giant customer, but only if such deadlines are not commonplace. Too many deadlines and people will just feel like they're on a treadmill—going nowhere fast.

    "We found that in general, extreme time pressure is bad for creative productivity, but low-to-moderate time pressure is good," Amabile says.
  5. Offering help with the work. Autonomy is not the same thing as isolation, Amabile says. Employees will feel inhibited if they don't feel comfortable asking for support or, worse, if they feel that others are deliberately blocking necessary information from them.
  6. Learning from both problems and successes. "Ideally this means having managers and coworkers who, if you try something and it fails, will not punish you or ridicule you, but will say, 'OK, what happened? Do you know what went wrong and why? Let's figure it out,'" Amabile says. "That can actually take a setback and turn it into a sense of progress: you learned something."
  7. Allowing ideas to flow. In short, good managers know when to shut up and listen.

The book also details the four nourishers necessary for a healthy inner work life: respect and recognition, encouragement, emotional support, and, finally, affiliation—any action that serves to develop mutual trust, appreciation, and even affection among coworkers.

Amabile acknowledges that financial constraints can impede some of the catalysts, especially when it comes to sufficient material resources. But there's no good excuse for avoiding the nourishers.

"You don't need a lot of resources to do any of those things," she says. "We're not talking about hiring fancy comics to perform at lunchtime. You just need to make people feel supported as people. And it's worth it. People are more creative, productive, collegial, and committed to their work when they have a positive inner work life."

Book Excerpt From the Progress Principle

The Progress PrincipleHow can you keep employees truly engaged in the work they are doing? We found that the single most important thing you can do is to help them make progress in work they perceive as valuable. This is the progress principle.

You might think it is obvious that managers should focus on supporting employees' work progress. It is not. Here's a startling fact: if managers were to draw a bar graph depicting the major influences on employee motivation, progress wouldn't even be in the picture. We have asked dozens of managers, individually and in groups, to name their most important levers for motivating employees. They tend to favor the things that most management books tout: recognition, tangible incentives, and clear work goals. When we ask how they, as managers, might influence employee emotions, the list looks the same, although many add interpersonal support. Rarely—very rarely—does anyone mention progress in the work and how managers should support it. A 2009 McKinsey survey on motivating people at work yielded the same story—progress was completely absent from the results. In other words, if we had a group of managers draw a bar graph depicting what they think the key three influences on inner work life are, progress would be missing.

Puzzled, we wondered if our progress finding was just too obvious. Maybe managers didn't mention supporting progress because they saw it as so fundamental to leading people that it went without saying. Maybe more formal inquiries would reveal a recognition of the progress principle. To find out, we created a survey in which 669 managers ranked the importance of five factors that could influence motivations and emotions at work. Four of the items were straight from conventional management wisdom: recognition, incentives, interpersonal support, and clear goals. The fifth was "support for making progress in the work." Surely, we thought, if we explicitly include progress in the list, managers will put it at the top.

But no. The results revealed unawareness of the power of progress, across all levels of management. Support for making progress was ranked dead last as a motivator, and third (out of five) as an influence on emotion. In fact, only 35 of the 669 managers ranked progress as the number-one motivator; that's a mere 5 percent. Instead, overall, these managers ranked "recognition for good work (either public or private)" as the most important factor in motivating workers and making them happy. Recognition certainly did boost inner work life, when it showed up in our diary study. But it wasn't nearly as prominent as progress. Besides, without work achievements, there is little to recognize.

And not only did managers get the wrong answer on our survey. In the companies we studied, far too many managers acted as if they didn't understand the importance of supporting everyday progress. One of the most common ways that managers unwittingly undermine daily progress is by failing to make timely decisions or provide clear, consistent goals. Here's an example from a work diary in a consumer products company:

Had meetings [ …  ] to discuss how to reposition our proposal for a new hand-held mixer. This project has taken over 1 year to develop, mainly because the division's management team continually asked for more analysis, and R&D was slow in developing a reasonable technology to create a soft-grip handle. Finally, the team rallied to present a viable project, which the management team approved, only to have the COO say he wants a hard-grip handle [instead,] at a $5 lower retail. Steve [our team leader] waffles back and forth. [ …  ] Very frustrating project, getting little support from Corporate, management team, or key team members [ …  ]. Yet, all agree that the competitive situation is becoming desperate [ …  ]. I have prepared yet another proposal to show the management team tomorrow, but I need to get Steve to buy in; not sure which way he will go. [Sophie, product manager at a consumer products company, 4/26]

And the next day, this same product manager wrote the following:

[ …  ] Frustrating. Lack of decisiveness is driven by political pressure from corporate, making them [the VPs] very risk averse. Steve is not strongly leading the project, and appears to be afraid to come down on one side or the other in the argument. [Sophie, 4/27]

Besides impeding progress, shifting goals can also drain work of its meaning. When people feel that their hard work will not amount to anything, they come to feel that they are wasting their time, and that their work is without value.

Today [the VP of R&D] tried to wipe out quite a bit of work we've done [ …  ] he wants it another way because "he said so." [He] is like a steamroller—he wants his way and doesn't want to listen to anybody else. It is so frustrating!! Why pretend to give us autonomy if you're just going to make everything be done your way anyway??? [Designer at a consumer products company]

Goals can shift for many reasons, but the consequences for inner work life are almost always negative. For instance, managers often fail to realize the damage that will be done to employee engagement if they neglect proper customer management.

Found out that there is a strong possibility that the project may not be going forward, due to a shift in the client's agenda. Therefore, there is a strong possibility that all the time and effort put into the project was a waste of our time. [Software engineer at a high-tech company]

Ensuring clear and consistent goals is only one way that managers can support daily progress and infuse the work with meaning for their employees. We discovered several—none of them surprising or exotic—but all of them crucial for employee engagement and long-term performance.


About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of HBS Working Knowledge.