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 Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
    • John L Evans Jr
    • Exec Director, Janus Labs, Janus Capital
    Precisely. So the (a) holy grail in effectuating positive change in organizations is establishing the HABIT of small wins ... Get the snow ball under way!

    (perhaps) A best practice - establish a 30 day reward system (small win) for establishing a culture of small wins.
    • Tim Gieseke
    • President, Ag Resource Strategies, LLC
    Very nicely explained. And I will try to apply these concepts to our growing children as well. Appreciating the efforts and providing the necessary resources for people makes such a positive difference.
    • Ron Peterson
    • Legal Recruiter,
    If I understand the formulaic nature of this excerpt and book, the plan is to invite innovations within company goals and upon company projects. I have no problem with the focus on small victories but I do have one on the whole nature of corporate innovation programs that are structured at all levels. It's my experience that innovation and meaningful change come about as people generate their own ideas, often as solutions upon problems that they find in their own work. Establishing success, time and other parameters would invite control, change, and a lost feeling of ownership, I would expect.
    • G.P.Rao.
    • Founder Chairman., Spandan (Foundation for Human Values in management and society), India.
    Very original and novel in its approach and the method.
    It is on the observation that negative events leave a longlasting impact on human psyche that I wish to share my own expreiences. As a teacher, trainer and consultant in management I had on several occasions administered the excercise, 'The most memorable incident in (earliest of) my life' to the students. participants in programmes, professionals and persons from almost all walks of life. Running into several hundreds so far, by far the most important memories these people carry from their past are one of unpleasantness and sadness. On probing as to why 'you remember the sad event more', several answers were proferred. The answer which I remember most was from a student, who said, ' Sir, we remember unpleasant events more, since we want to forget them most!'
    Whether remembering sad events more is 'unfortunate', as was suggested, is however debatable. Taken in a right and positive spirit, such events may enable the person concerned emerge different and better in his(her) future career and life.
    • shadreck saili
    • UCT
    I totally agree that small wins enhance creativity in organizational and other set ups were such ingenuity is required. How? We may all be aware that creativity is a phenomenon of a person or a group of persons ( human beings), not machines , to create something new which can either be a product, service or solution. A "person" being the center of creativity, implies that the dynamism factor in creativity is at its peak. managing dynamism of persons therfore becomes candinal if one wishes to get the best imagination from a person or a group of persons. In managing persons, structuring work in a manner that brings about a sense of satisfactions, achievement and ownership to the human being (worker) involved, is certainly a good strategy of egniting and maintaining ingenuity in individuals. The feeling of satification,achievment and ownership enhances the desire by worker to do more of such, thus bring about continued ze
    al to originality thinking. Need less to say it is easy to loose focus as organisational main objective seem very distant from an individual's perspective( individual contribution). Small wins enable a worker to focus his/her natural dynamism in the direction that is as well desired by the organisation. The objectives of the small wins are more closer to an individual and thus create strong ownership. In my view,this book is affirming the fact that the effective implementation of an organisation's vision is the summation of small wins.
    • Paul Nicholas
    • Director, Soul-Chaplain Consultancy
    Interesting item - thank you.
    "There's no reason...why managers can't help employees see the meaning in their work" seems to be the very essence of the issue - and the main purpose of management or leadership is the creation of meaning within the organization or team. Where there is no meaning there is no purpose, and where there is no purpose there is no motivation. We can even paraphrase Ben Franklin "For the want of a meaning...everything is lost."
    Interestingly the physiological and psychological impact of wins either big or small is pretty much the same - people feel good, positive, valued, motivated and empowered - and they work better because of it.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    As for our personal life, so for the organisation - proper, crystallised and workable/achievable goal setting is the most important starter. Yes, some changes, here and there, may have to be effected as we proceed but the basic goal has to remain as it was contemplated. The next success factor is the time management and aim to hit the deadline. Till the closing stage, monitoring progress regularly leads to ensuring we are on track.
    During the span of performance, various wins, even small ones, need to be acknowledged for the creativity of the achiever.
    It is indeed painfully observed that people are hit more by the shocks of failures rather than by the pleasure of successes. Mostly the managers are keen to reprimand their juniors for even nominal setbacks but not, at the same time, patting the good work done. Negative impact of such actions is obvious.
    I also have been taking for granted "progress" as a catalyst and nourisher and never mentioned it specifically as such while speaking of the success factors. 'The Progress Principle' is a great concept and has been noted with a sense of appreciation.
    • Srinivasan
    • Director, H
    Interesting read... Have been a manager long enough. The survey shows something different than what I would have thought on the effect of progress being acknowledged as a very significant factor in motivation.

    The effect of negative and positive - has been clearly understood over time, in many cases.
    • Effective Delegation
    • Owner, M D Moore Marketing, LLC
    Assigning employees with "work they perceive as valuable" is spot on as a management tool. Not always easy where the press of work and assignments is at full speed. the ability of a manager to also focus on innovation will help employees as well.
    • Steve Van Valin
    • Creative Catalyst, Vynamic
    Creating and ensuring the meaningful work factor requires a whole new type of leadership competency. I'd liken it to an advanced form of EQ where empathy is elevated. You not only have to "see" the vision for the work, but be able to communicate it early and often in a way that emotes for others. That's a real talent! Those type of conversations will define the truly great leaders of the future.
    • Dave Wisland
    • Motivation Wizard, Wisland Marketing LLC
    The completion of a successful and meaningful project itself may be the holy grail of motivation, but each positive step toward that end makes the goal that much more tangible and attainable. Morale momentum fuels and accelerates effort and innovation. Sustaining that momentum is a very effective tool for overall performance improvement.
    • Prisca Mashengyero Thembo
    • Gender Advisor, Concern Uganda
    Where as work must be valuable, personal views need to be respected too. It is when my voice is valued that i feel highly motivated. Such a small action like listening to me help me go an extra mile by putting in extra hours towards achievement of the organisational goals. Rewarding and recognising small wins is indeed a great motivator towards progress; however most Managers are obsessed with the end "results" and never have an eye for small steps taken towards achievement of the most desired result. In such circumstances one loses the control over the project and focusses on the output regardless of its quality. I have heard comments like; "who is the other's Boss?" from a lines manager during feed back meetings in persuit of expressing my autonomous innovative approach to a task. Such a reaction does not only stall the project; it makes one one lose trust in the whole organisation. Public relations is a cr
    utial progress principle.