The Progress Principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement and creativity at work
One of the most important pieces of creativity and innovation research from the past couple of decades can be found in the book The Progress Principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement and creativity at work.
In it, authors Professor Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer analysed nearly 12,000 diary entries provided by 238 employees in 7 companies.
Each day, these diaries would indicate how the person felt about their work that day and what had happened. Using rigorous analytical methods, the authors and their team could then indicate whether the person had been creative on that day, how their work was going, and how their work seemed to relate to others in the team they were working with.
What they found was fascinating.
Their research clearly shows a strong connection between the inner work lives of the participants and not only their creativity, but their work performance, and the performance of their entire teams.
And the most powerful factor which led to a positive inner work life was not what management experts predicted.
It was not incentives, pay, bonuses for good work or recognition.
It was much simpler.
The most powerful driver of inner work life performance was the feeling of making progress in your work.
If people felt like the work they were doing had meaning, and they could see that they personally and their team were making progress towards a clear goal, they were much more likely to enjoy their work, bring their best performance (even under pressure) and even be more creative.
In fact, the feeling of progress was so strong, that people often still had higher performance and creativity on the days after the actual progress was made.
So what is inner work life, and what helps either drive positive performance (resulting in increased creativity), or hinder performance (resulting in decreased creativity)?
The workday events a person experiences interact with how the inner mind of the person feels on any particular day. This will be a combination of Perceptions, Emotions and Motivation.
All of these work together and result in individual performance for that day.
What the research clearly showed though is that while feeling progress can result in a positive feedback loop (where progress results in a more positive inner work life, which drives higher performance, and as a result even more progress), there can also be a negative feedback loop (where setbacks result in a negative inner work life on that day, lower performance, less progress and more setbacks).
The research also reiterated other research on the power of negative emotions, which are much more powerful than positive emotions. So even a small setback can result in a much larger drop in performance than an equivalent positive bit of progress. They found that the connection between mood and negative work events was 5x stronger than the connection between mood and positive events.
So what causes these times of progress and setbacks?
Positive aspects which help inner work life, progress and creativity.
- Progress: events signifying progress, including
- Small wins
- Forward Momentum
- Goal completions
- Catalysts: events supporting the work (particularly by management), including:
- Nourishment: events supporting the person, including:
- Emotional support
- Affiliation (as part of something)
Negative aspects, which harm inner work life, reduce progress and harm creativity:
- Inhibitors (often from poor management and lack of leadership)
- The lack of any of the 7 catalysts listed above
- Poor communication
- Failing to support the person or project
- Actively hindering a project
- Disrespect / Aggression
- Inattention / Dismissing a person’s views
- Decreased perceived value of the project
- Negative emotions (anger, fear, sadness)
It is important to understand though that often, leaders, managers and colleagues are not aware that they are putting up inhibitors or spreading toxins. They may even get defensive if you try to bring it up.
So if you want to ensure your team is not only as creative as can be, but also able to execute on these ideas and deliver innovation, be aware of how you can provide Catalysts for your teams and remove Inhibitors which they may currently be dealing with.
In the book, the authors provide a Daily Progress Checklist on page 168 which can be useful in tracking each day whether you have helped or hindered your team.
You can also download a free PDF copy of the checklist here.
All in all, I think this is a key book for anyone who wants to understand creativity in teams better, and essential reading for anyone wanting to facilitate innovation in their teams and organisation.