Why you should sweat the small stuff

Small wins at regular intervals will keep your team motiviated.

Today's tip comes from ITworld member Ty Kiisel, Manager of Social Outreach at AtTask, Inc.

"All good managers understand the importance of making sure that every member of a team feels personally motivated and necessary though the workday, lest their work should stagnate and suffer," wrote Carmen Nobel in a recent issue of Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge newsletter. "But what's the key to igniting creativity, joy, trust, and productivity among your employees? According to recent research, the single most important factor is simply a sense of making progress on meaningful work. But creating an environment that fosters progress takes some careful effort."

Nobel cites a new book by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer that I've just added to my "need to read" list: The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.

The authors collected stories from 238 white-collar employees from seven different companies within a variety of industries. They had each worker fill out a diary during the day to answer a pretty open-ended question: "Briefly describe one event from today that stands out in your mind."

Have you ever experienced a day where you were head down, working like crazy but at the end of the day you didn't feel like you got anything done? I know I have those days. According to the authors, this is a big deal and a real motivation killer (my words not theirs). "We found that of all the events that characterized the best inner work life days, by far the most prominent was making progress," they say. "And of all the events that characterized the worst days, by far the most prominent was setbacks -- feeling like you've lost ground on a project. As a pair, progress and setbacks are the main differentiators of the best and worst days."

The good news is that although it takes some thought, Amabile and Kramer found that small events that have a major impact on work life. "Big breakthroughs at work are really rare. But small wins are something people can experience pretty regularly if the work is chunked down to manageable pieces. This suggests that you really have to sweat the small stuff."

I think there are a couple of really important factors that will help project teams experience those small wins at regular intervals. I think we just need to change how project managers interact with the team and how the team interacts with the process:

1. Increase opportunities for recognition: Give team members visibility into what their colleagues are doing, encourage them to interact and make comments regarding the work. If social media has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that people will interact and make comments about what their friends are doing. If we can foster an environment at work that encourages that type of communication regarding tasks, issues and projects, individual team members will feel a sense of recognition and accomplishment regarding their work.

2. Give the team some autonomy: I'm not advocating an anarchistic project management approach, but engage the team early in the planning process. Give them a voice in timelines and deliverables. This approach works pretty well with SCRUM teams. Shouldn't we allow those closest to the work some decision-making authority in how things are done and who they are done with?

3. Recognize accomplishments: Sometimes the only time the team hears from the project manager is when things fall behind schedule or the project is in trouble. If this is the case in your organization, nobody wants to hear from the PM. Of course, that doesn't mean that recognition should consist of insincere platitudes. A simple acknowledgment of good work is often enough to provide team members with a sense of accomplishment.

4. Make sure everyone knows what the goals are and then get out of the way: "People need to know what goal they're trying to reach, but they have to have autonomy in order to get there," Amabile says. It's a delicate balance. You do want to make sure that people understand what their mission is, but you don't want to micromanage them. If you do, their creative thinking shuts down, and you lose the value of their unique talents, expertise, and perspectives."

This isn't rocket science. If anything, it probably sounds too simple to be of any value. However, over the course of my career I've seen these simple techniques work. Through small means great things are often accomplished.

What are some of the "small" things you do on your project team that reap "big" results?

Now read:
4 tips for a happier project team
Want to be a project leader? Hone these 5 traits for project management success
9 signs your project may be in trouble

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