Don’t underestimate the power of incremental progress

Leadership  Productivity
04 September, 2017

How to transform big, ambitious ideas into consistent, daily progress

More than eight months have passed in 2017. I wonder, how many of you have kept your last New Year’s resolutions? We begin the year full of ambitious ideas – be it shedding 5 kilos, mastering a new language, or implementing a path-breaking idea at work. But almost inevitably, motivation flags within a couple of months; by the middle of the year, the resolutions are usually gathering dust in our drawers.

We all wish for overnight successes.  Alas, for most of us, there is no short cut to success. It is the small, consistent, daily actions that matter. It is the thousands of little things that make the difference.

To be sure, having clear objectives and goals are core to any success we want to attain – as individuals, as a team, or as an organisation. It gives you direction and a sense of purpose. But by itself, it is not enough to drive achievement. In fact, an excessive focus on the big picture can be paralysing, instead of inspiring. You begin with a grand gesture, full of excitement and passion. But wait – how do you keep going? How do you stay inspired when progress is so slow? How do you transform big ideas into consistent effort?

Noted author Seth Godin says it very well:

“The thing is, incremental daily progress (negative or positive) is what actually causes transformation. A figurative drip, drip, drip. Showing up, every single day, gaining in strength, organizing for the long haul, building connection, laying track—this subtle but difficult work is how culture changes”

So, this week, my message focuses on how you can personally harness the power of incremental progress and support your team’s daily progress as a leader.

This idea of daily gains is at the heart of the 1% approach, which is a good way to kick start your incremental progress journey. Described by Brian McFadden in The 1% Method: How Incremental Progress Turns Into Mammoth Results, all this strategy asks of you is 1% of your day – a grand total of 15 minutes – dedicated towards your goal. Followers of this method – from prolific writer, Anthony Trollope to former bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger – swear that this tiny window holds the potential for massive results.

The 1% method offers an excellent answer to the question that inevitably follows the goal-setting process: Where do I begin? Starting with 15 minutes a day helps you break through the paralysing inertia created by the lofty end goal. From big things done occasionally, you reorient your focus towards little things done consistently. Not only does this help you move ahead at a steady pace, it also infuses every single day with a sense of meaning and accomplishment. Seeing the end goal as a single, huge, far-off victory makes it difficult to keep going, but when you see it as a series of small achievements, each action becomes meaningful. Make sure to acknowledge the minor wins you garner along the way – this will keep you feeling motivated and inspired. I also recommend documenting your daily successes closely. This makes it much easier to see your own progress in black and white, which is a handy pick-me-up for moments when you feel overwhelmed and demoralised.

Incremental gains build much-needed momentum. It is a bad idea to go from a resting start to full speed – you may win a short dash, but the marathon is definitely lost. The baby-steps mantra allows you to create a strong foundation, then gather speed. As McFadden explains, time-stacking is the next step:

‘When you get good at allocating 1% of your day to your most important tasks, it allows you to stack another 15 minutes on top of that much easier…. Starting out with 1% gives you momentum, but in the long run stacking those 15 minute intervals to accumulate several hours per day is how you achieve mastery.’

From a leadership point of view, it isn’t enough to master the art of incremental progress for yourself. Leaders also need to nurture daily progress among their teams. The single greatest motivator at the workplace is not recognition, incentives, interpersonal support, or clear goals – rather, it is a sense of accomplishment on a day-to-day basis. In their Harvard Business Review article, The Power of Small Wins, Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer explain that a person’s sense of progress is the key to their productivity. When people feel they are making meaningful headway, this boosts their mood, motivation, and perceptions – which in turn inspires them to do their best work. Unfortunately, the idea of achievement is usually linked with big results; the motivating power of countless small victories along the way is overlooked.

Here are some ways that you can support the all-important sense of ongoing progress within your teams: 

1. Break down the big goals

Okay, so you have the annual or quarterly targets in place. But is that, by itself, really enough to keep your team at the top of their game for months on end? The intimidation factor I mentioned earlier is at play here as well – a single massive goal can seem unachievable. The simple act of dividing this monolith into smaller, bite-sized segments can make a huge difference. Based on the overall goal, what are the monthly and weekly objectives? And what is the daily milestone? Breaking it down makes the work more manageable and also creates numerous opportunities for success. Each time a member of the team achieves their milestones for the day or week, they derive a satisfying sense of progress which renews their enthusiasm and passion for the project.

2. Recognise small wins

Chances are your team already celebrates the big wins. But what about the smaller, deeply impactful progress events along the way? Make it a point to identify and celebrate these minor milestones, be it over-delivering on a weekly target or solving a problem that slowed everyone down all morning. Such seemingly-insignificant gains are actually potent motivators that help fuel a sense of continual achievement.

3. Infuse work with meaning

It is not enough to simply complete a task – for the progress dividend to kick in, the work must be meaningful to the person doing it. Amabile and Kramer explain that when it comes to perceptions of progress, a sense of meaning is crucial. The worst thing a leader can do is to make their team’s efforts seem futile.

‘Whether the goals are lofty or modest, as long as they are meaningful to the worker and it is clear how his or her efforts contribute to them, progress toward them can galvanize inner work life. Managers can help employees see how their work is contributing. Most important, they can avoid actions that negate its value.

Managers may dismiss the importance of employees’ work or ideas [or] send the message that the work employees are doing will never see the light of day. They can signal this—unintentionally—by shifting their priorities or changing their minds about how something should be done.’

4. Encourage ownership

Another way to build a sense of personal progress is through fostering ownership. Empower your teams to handle projects as independently as possible and avoid the temptation to micromanage. If you insist on second-guessing every detail and making each decision, then any success that comes their way may not feel like their own. Moreover, sudden and frequent reassignments damage the sense of ownership, so try to let your team members see their projects through until the end. Amabile and Kramer also recommend sharing valuable knowledge generously as this enables your team to succeed on their own:

‘Micromanagers tend to hoard information to use as a secret weapon…. When subordinates perceive that a manager is withholding potentially useful information, they feel infantilized, their motivation wanes, and their work is handicapped.’

A couple of big leaps or breathless sprints simply cannot take you or your team to the ultimate destination. Only a journey consisting of thousands of baby steps can do that. The value of incremental progress lies in its realistic and steady pace (remember the fable of the tortoise and the hare?).

So, next time you turn to the big picture for inspiration, make sure to follow it up by taking a step towards your end goal – no matter how small. Then, follow that up by another small step. And so on. To borrow from author Robert Collier, “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.”

As always, I look forward to your perspectives.


  • Sandip Janardan says:

    Excellent article!
    Short and precise… With little gems of key pointers scattered all over.

    I believe though most leaders especially at mid-senior levels recognize the need for some of these steps, the urgent takes over leaving what is important behind.

    Urgent v/s Important is perhaps a key task which leaders and aspiring ones need to grasp and deal with.



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