Progress – The Power of Small Wins

Progress – The Power of Small Wins

We dream of better futures, so we set Big Hairy Audacious Goals for our personal lives and our organizations, and work diligently toward their achievement. But because the due dates for our BHAGs are so far into the future, it is a rare event when we actually get to feel the thrill and satisfaction of achieving these long-term goals. Even our Quarterly Strategic Projects (Big Rocks) are only checked off 4 times per year. 

Sure, being able to cross goals off our list as “done” is a great feeling, but the motivational effect can be short-lived. After the celebrations have worn off, the comedown can leave you feeling a little bit empty inside. Now what?

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Ernest Hemingway

The research contained in the book The Progress Principle backs up Hemingway’s quote. It’s not just about goal achievement (the destination), it really is about enjoying the journey. The studies show that when people can see that they are making tangible progress every step of the way and experience “small wins” often, they become more engaged and productive.

These “small wins” are the incremental steps toward longer-term goals. People are much happier and more creative in their roles when they can visibly see continuous progress on their goals in a series of smaller daily and weekly steps.

Make progress visible.

Find a software tool that lets everyone see the progress you are making every step of the way. With radical transparency, everyone can see how everyone else on the team is performing, and all employees get treated fairly according to their performance.

Making performance visible on a dashboard is a good first step, but a software tool is not going to manage your people for you. Managers still need to manage. You must meet with your people to discuss their performance and hold people accountable to make sure things are getting done every week. Dashboards don’t absolve the manager of their obligation to coach and support their people.

I have a saying: “Successful Business Execution is 20% giving people clarity about what needs to be done, and 80% following up to make sure it actually gets done”

Daily Huddle / Daily Update

One great way of leveraging the progress principle and highlighting small wins is to conduct “Daily Huddles” or “Stand Up Meetings” to give everyone in the team a quick status update of what is going on, and just as importantly, what is actually getting done on a daily basis. 

Teams who operate asynchronously in different timezones perform a similar daily process but use written text via their online chat platform and typically submit their “Daily Update” at the end of their working day.

Typical questions asked:

  1. What did you get done today?
  2. What will you get done tomorrow, and what is “The One Thing“?
  3. Any roadblocks or needs?

The research also showed that when employees can see they’re making progress toward achieving their Goals and Tasks, or when they receive support from their manager that helps them overcome obstacles, their motivation and drive to succeed is at its peak.

However, on days when they feel like they are spinning their wheels, or encountering roadblocks and not achieving their goals, their moods and motivation are lowest.

Management behaviors that INCREASE employee motivation:

  • Set clear and meaningful SMART goals (most managers get SMART goals wrong)
  • Provide the necessary resources, support, and encouragement
  • Protect your people from other demands and distractions so they can focus
  • Roll your sleeves up and help them out
  • Make progress and small wins clearly visible
  • Praise and acknowledge people who make progress toward their goals every week
  • Hold people accountable for results
  • Provide feedback and coaching to improve performance

Management behaviors that DECREASE employee motivation:

  • Continually change the goals
  • Add new projects before the previous projects are completed
  • Be indecisive
  • Withhold the resources they need to be successful
  • Cause setbacks or create roadblocks to impede their progress
  • Create intense time pressure
  • Keep your people in a state of constant crisis
  • Not tracking progress accurately
  • No feedback on progress (positive or negative)
  • No accountability for results
  • No performance coaching

Beware! The research shows that the negative management behaviors listed above have a greater effect on people’s motivation than the positive ones, so you need to pay close attention to this list. Work to eliminate the negative first.

Which of these negative management behaviors do you need to reduce or eliminate in your company?


Until next time…