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How Small Wins Unleash Creativity

| October 4, 2011

by Jim Bruce

Over the past several weeks I’ve seen many reviews of Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s new book “ The Progress Principle:  Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.”  Today’s reading “How Small Wins Unleash Creativity” from Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge is a summary of that book.*  

Amabile and Kramer’s research indicates that the single most important factor in engaging people at work is for each individual to sense that he or she is making progress on meaningful work.  That is, that they regularly achieve small wins.  And, similarly, the worst days were characterized by setbacks, a sense that they have lost ground on their work.

Research for the book involved analysis of daily diary entries from 238 white-collar workers at seven diverse companies.  The diary entries charted the perception, emotions, and motivations that individuals experienced as they related to and made sense of their work day.  Analysis of these diary entries identified seven major catalysts for progress:

1.  Set clear goals.  “People have to understand what they’re doing and why.”  To get frequent small wins, it is necessary to structure a project in terms of smaller goals attainable in shorter time.

2.  Allowing autonomy.  Staff need to know the goal they are working on.  But, they also need to have autonomy, space, to get there.

3.  Providing resources.  Starving a project does not enhance creativity, it reduces the effectiveness and leads to missed milestones.

4.  Provide enough time for the work;  neither too much or too little.  Deadlines, and how they relate to the overall project plan, are key.

5.  Offer help.  Giving the team autonomy is not the same as having them work in isolation.  Stay in contact.

6.  Learn from goth problems and successes.  Always take the time to debrief the work after the goals are attained.

7.  Let ideas flow.  Know when to listen.

Research for “The Progress Principle” also identified four actions that nourish staff:  respect, recognition, encouragement, and affiliation, all actions that help develop strong positive, supportive relationships among co-workers.

So, as you review your present work and plan for the future, do structure the work in a way to enable small, regular wins.


.  .  .   jim




NYTimes, September 3, 2011 – Do Happier People Work Harder <>

Bob Sutton’s (faculty member at the Stanford Business School) blog – <>