The Power of Small Steps

12/14/2016

It turns out that ordinary scientists, marketers, programmers, and other unsung knowledge workers, whose jobs require creative productivity every day, have more in common with famous innovators than many managers realize. The workday events that ignite their daily passion and emotions, fuel their motivation, and trigger their perceptions are fundamentally similar.

How do some people “achieve” considerably more than others? How do they stay motivated to perform day after day?

How do great organizations become that way?
If continued innovation is a major key to business success, how do the better businesses drive innovative work inside their companies?
Important understanding lies in the stories of world-renowned creators. It turns out that ordinary scientists, marketers, programmers, and other unsung knowledge workers, whose jobs require creative productivity every day, have more in common with famous innovators than many managers realize. The workday events that ignite their daily passion and emotions, fuel their motivation, and trigger their perceptions are fundamentally similar.

Henry Ford

Henry Ford began his automotive career as a simple machinist, working alongside other machinists, many of whom were smarter and had more intellect than Ford. Yet he managed to make hundreds of millions of dollars and become the richest man in the world, in his day, because he didn’t believe it was “impossible” to do so, and took small, but continued significant steps to achieve his dreams.

Meanwhile, his fellow earlier machinists remained machinists for life, because of the word “impossible” in their minds, and because they did not have a vision to go where Henry was determined to go.

The Double Helix, James Watson’s 1968 memoir about discovering the structure of DNA, describes the roller coaster of emotions he and Francis Crick experienced through the progress and setbacks of the work that eventually earned them the Nobel Prize. After the excitement of their first attempt to build a DNA model, Watson and Crick noticed some serious flaws. According to Watson, “Our first minutes with the models…were not joyous.” Later that evening, “a shape began to emerge which brought back our spirits.” But when they showed their “breakthrough” to colleagues, they found that their model would not work. Dark days of doubt and ebbing motivation followed. When the duo finally had their bona fide breakthrough, and their colleagues found no fault with it, Watson wrote, “My morale skyrocketed, for I suspected that we now had the answer to the riddle.” Watson and Crick were so driven by this success that they practically lived in the lab, trying to complete the work.

Throughout these episodes, Watson and Crick’s progress—or lack thereof—ruled their reactions. In recent research on creative work inside businesses, researchers have we stumbled upon a remarkably similar phenomenon. Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, they discovered the progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making ongoing progress in meaningful work.

Additionally they found that the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.

The power of progress is fundamental to human nature, (just look at the continual innovations we as humans continue to make year after year, from Stone Age [the wheel & fire] to todays nano technologies and computers). But few managers understand it or know how to leverage progress to boost motivation. In fact, work motivation has been a subject of long-standing debate. In a survey asking about the keys to motivating workers, researchers found that some managers ranked recognition for good work as most important, while others put more stock in tangible incentives. Some focused on the value of interpersonal support, while still others thought clear goals were the answer. Interestingly, very few of the surveyed managers ranked progress first.

A Surprise for Managers

If you are a manager, the progress principle holds clear implications for where to focus your efforts. It suggests that you have more influence than you may realize over employees’ well-being, motivation, and creative output. Knowing what serves to catalyze and nourish progress—and what does the opposite—turns out to be the key to effectively managing people and their work.

Peter Ashworth is Founder and CEO of BrightCoach, a global Business and Life Coaching company dedicated to helping its clients achieve their desired personal and business goals. He is also a Life Coach, Executive Coach, Public Speaker, Artist and Entrepreneur. He has worked with hundreds of business leaders, from the Fortune 100 to small and medium company’s in many countries. He can be reached at peter@bright.coach .

Adpated by Peter Ashworth from a Harvard Business Review Article by:

Teresa M. Amabile (tamabile@hbs.edu) is the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and the author of Creativity in Context (Westview Press, 1996).

Steven J. Kramer (stevek1006@workevents.net) is an independent researcher, writer, and consultant in Wayland, Massachusetts. He is a coauthor of “Creativity Under the Gun” (HBR August 2002) and “Inner Work Life” (HBR May 2007). Their book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work is forthcoming from Harvard Business Review Press.