“Small wins have a transformational power. Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion to favor another small win and another small win until the combination of these small wins lead to larger and greater accomplishments”.
Mehrnaz Bassiri, Educator
Celebrating major achievements comes naturally to us, be it getting a promotion at work or hitting a long-awaited target. But how many of us know how to harness the hundreds of small wins in our everyday lives?
With the upheaval created by COVID-19, people have been grappling with unprecedented problems – from dramatic changes in the nature of work, to interruptions in their children’s education. In the face of these challenges, setting ourselves super-size goals can start to feel overwhelming. In our quest for the big breakthrough, the smaller steps of progress can get overlooked. Focusing instead on a series of micro, concrete changes and small wins can be very impactful, offering much-needed boosts of energy and inspiration along the way.
In The Progress Principle, an influential book that came out about a decade ago, researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer showed that micro-victories have the power to spark joy, motivation and creativity. Making incremental daily progress transforms your “inner work life” (i.e. your perceptions, emotions and motivations around work), leading to deeper engagement, greater creativity and better performance. Simply put, the progress principle is the positive impact of making forward movement on meaningful work. This idea is based on the ground-breaking work done by Karl E. Weick, an iconic organisational theorist. In a classic paper published in 1984, Weick explains that conceiving problems and solutions on a massive scale makes them overwhelming and builds frustration. On the other hand, a series of small wins can create sustained action and unleash innovation.
So, my message this week focuses on the immense power of micro-victories. Why is it important to celebrate everyday accomplishments, especially during a crisis? And how can we unlock the benefits of these small wins, as leaders and as individuals?
Given that most days tend to meld into each other in lockdown mode, as a family, we have realised that it is important to have tangible markers of progress. So, each of us identifies at the beginning of the day three things that we want to at least accomplish that day. And in the evening, during our dinner together, we discuss how we did, what we learnt and applaud each other for what we got done. And on certain days, my wife Roopi makes sure that there is something extra-special in the meals to celebrate some of the milestones!
The problem with going big
When faced with significant challenges, like the current pandemic, leaders might be tempted to respond with bold moves. Setting a huge end goal and putting your entire focus on it is intimidating, and can paralyse your team members into inaction. What’s more, the fear of catastrophic failure stifles innovation and creativity. In his article, Look for Small Wins, Bill Taylor highlights this inhibiting effect as explained by Sim B. Sitkin, a professor of leadership at Duke University:
The problem for leaders who think too big and aim to move too quickly…is that their rank-and-file colleagues also see the possibility of missteps and mistakes, and understand the stakes when things go wrong. So people often fail to act, rather than act and fail, since they are less likely to suffer the consequences of bold moves they did not take.
Stressed leaders also tend to focus single-mindedly on financial performance, overlooking the daily challenges faced by their teams. When employees can’t make meaningful progress on a day-to-day basis, they lose intrinsic motivation and their performance suffers. Research shows that the negative impact of setbacks is 2-3 times greater than the positive impact of making progress. Left unchecked, these seemingly minor obstacles can kickstart a negative cycle in the organisation.
A skewed perspective
Why are we so fixated on grand accomplishments? One reason is how success stories are portrayed in the news and social media. We’ve become used to seeing tremendous achievements that apparently happen overnight – without access to the deliberate practice, dedication and failure behind the scenes. In her TEDx Talk
These seemingly large successes being accomplished by others have programmed our thoughts and desires to want and expect the same kind of results in our own lives. We’ve started to measure our progress on an oversized scale.
Bassiri explains that measuring incremental progress against the ultimate outcome is like weighing ants on a human-sized weighing scale – it looks like nothing is happening! Instead of celebrating your little triumphs, you start seeing them as failures, which can make you lose faith in yourself. To detect small wins, you need to shift your perspective. Rather than expecting giant strides of progress, pay attention to the small, consistent steps taken every day. Combined, it is these micro-victories that will take you over the finish line.
Jumpstart a positive progress loop
A culture focused on small wins solves a whole lot of problems.
Micro-goals are more actionable, which prevents paralysis and creates momentum. Change initiatives structured around small wins hold the possibility of modest failure, which encourages people to experiment and take more risks. And finally, leaders who are focused on their teams’ day-to-day progress act as catalysts for productivity and creativity, creating a positive trend within their teams as well as the organisation. Every single win that you acknowledge, no matter how small, activates the reward centres of your brain, releasing dopamine and testosterone. You feel happy, confident and energised, which spurs you on to the next victory. Small wins also come along much more often than big breakthroughs, allowing you to draw inspiration from them continuously.
The role of leadership
Here are four ways, recommended by Professor Amabile, in which you can facilitate your team’s ongoing progress and help them reap the benefits of small wins:
1. Create meaning
Meaningfulness is integral to the progress principle. Leaders must ensure that their team members understand how their work makes an important contribution and ties in with the organisation’s mission. Without this context, it’s difficult to feel that you’re making genuine progress.
2. Set clear, actionable goals and milestones
Lay out the objective clearly so that your team knows exactly what they need to accomplish. Then break down the big goal into smaller, interim milestones, aiming for early wins to build momentum. Continue to track progress, so the small wins don’t slip away unnoticed.
3. Provide autonomy
Once you’ve created clarity on the desired outcome, take a step back and let your team members take charge. Encourage them to map their own path by drawing on their skillset and expertise.
4. Remove impediments
As a leader, your role is also to proactively clear the obstacles that prevent your team from achieving daily progress. Are there blockages holding back important data or resources from your team? Do they have access to all the required systems?
Celebrate your own small wins
At an individual level, here are four suggestions to help you capitalise on the power of small wins:
1. Carve out focused time
High workloads can make you feel like you’re always running on a treadmill, without making much progress on the work that’s most important to you. That’s why it’s crucial to assign focused time in your schedule for meaningful tasks – those that really use your skills and creativity, as well as contribute to the organisation’s purpose. Start with half an hour a day, then work your way up to an hour.
2. Keep a work diary
Professor Amabile recommends tracking your progress through a daily diary. This helps you notice small accomplishments that would otherwise get overlooked entirely. The act of writing down your micro-victories forces you to slow down and acknowledge them – even on the most frustrating days. As a bonus, keeping a diary also allows you to reflect more deeply on your work.
3. Set goals leading to consistent action
Your personal goal-setting process should reflect the same principles you adopt for your team: clarity, achievability and consistency. Once you have a clear end goal, bring your attention to the process. What are the individual components you need to work on? What are 4-5 smaller milestones along the way?
Another way to look at it is systems versus goals. Rather than fixating on the destination, put your time and energy into building a system that will lead you there. In his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams elaborates:
If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal…
One should have a system instead of a goal. The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavours. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system…
4. Abandon/use social media to your advantage
For most people, announcing their intended goals on social media can have a surprisingly negative impact. As soon as they receive social appreciation, their brains start thinking that they’ve already achieved the objective! As a result, their drive plummets, and they become less likely to turn theory into action. If this rings a bell for you, avoid posting your goals online. Instead, communicate them to a few trusted friends who can help you celebrate real progress.
On the other hand, for a small group of people, social media works as a great motivator. When they declare their intentions publicly and receive validation, they feel like they have nowhere to hide and hold themselves more accountable. If you identify with this category, go ahead and make use of social media. The important thing is to know what works best for you and stick with it.
Steady incremental progress is at the heart of transformation. Restructure your perspective around making incremental progress and the small, everyday wins. Don’t lose sight of your lofty goals, but do celebrate the micro-victories along the way. This intentional, sustainable approach is what will ultimately lead you to that big victory.