The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work

By Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer
Published: July 19, 2011, 1st edition
ISBN: 978-1422198575
Recommendation: Avoid | Maybe | Get It | Must Have


Why Should You Read This?


Work hard. Study a lot. Put in the hours. To get ahead, you have to put in blood, sweat, and tears. These are all common, heavy-weight things you hear to be at your peak. But in the Harvard Business Review article, The Power of Small Wins, Professor Teresa Amabile and her husband, Dr. Steven Kramer, suggest an alternate approach.


After reviewing over 12,000 diaries of 238 knowledge workers from 7 companies distributed over 26 teams,  the authors found that while enormous efforts led to significant gains, it wasn’t the dominant driver.  They found, more often than not, small wins moved the progress needle. And that was the main differentiator for whether teams performed well or not. In other words, there may be a gentler alternative to the harsh grinding we are often taught as the prerequisite for success.


So, when I found out that Amabile and Kramer had written a book called “The Progress Principle,” I was hoping to learn what insights and actionables they had discovered in the hopes of using them to create my own “less-stress” productivity system.


Below are the 5 key takeaways inspired by the book.


Takeaway 1: Focus on Making Progress to Create the Positive Inner Work Life that Leads to High Performance


The authors analyzed the good and bad days of over 12,000 diary entries produced by high and low-performing teams to determine what drives high performance. They hypothesized that good days, characterized by a positive inner work life, led to better performance than bad days. So, they wanted to figure out what workday elements make it good versus bad. They then assessed what aspects of these days influenced the various performance elements.


For good days, Amabile and Kramer found the following 3 components played significant roles: the progress principle, catalyst factor, and nourishment factor.


The progress principle is any event signifying progress and can include:


  • Small wins
  • Breakthroughs
  • Forward movement
  • Goal completion


Catalyst factors are events supporting work and can include:


  • Setting clear goals
  • Allowing autonomy
  • Providing resources
  • Providing sufficient time
  • Getting help with work tasks
  • Learning from problems and successes
  • Allowing ideas to flow


Nourishment factors are events supporting the individual and can include:


  • Respect
  • Encouragement
  • Emotional support
  • Affiliation


For completeness, the elements that lead to a negative inner work life are the opposites of the ones above:


  • Setbacks (countering progress): moving backward or standing still
  • Inhibitors (opposing catalysts): events that hinder project work tasks
  • Toxins (contrasting nourishers): interpersonal events that undermine people doing the work


Unsurprisingly, the authors observed that good days had more positive and less negative elements.


So how do good/bad days influence performance?


Amabile and Kramer argue the mechanism is via inner work life. If you have a positive inner work life, your performance goes up. If it’s negative, your performance goes down.


So, what is inner work life?


The authors define it as the collection of perceptions, emotions, and motivations that individuals experience as they react to and make sense of their workday events. Specifically:


  • Perceptions are your thoughts about the workday – making sense of what’s happening while you work.
  • Emotions are your reactions to your workday.
  • Motivations are your determinations to do the work tasks.


So, when your perceptions, emotions, and motivations are positive, you have a positive inner work life. In turn, this positivity leads to high performance, which the authors measured among 4 dimensions:


  • Creativity: coming up with novel and helpful ideas
  • Productivity: getting work done on a steady basis
  • Commitment: willingness to persevere through difficulties
  • Collegiality: excellent teamwork


While they examined all 4 aspects, as knowledge workers were the main focus of their study, Amabile and Kramer cited creativity as the most crucial performance attribute. They argued that creativity was essential for generating high-quality output because the work was open-ended and involved problem-solving.


The authors speculate that a positive inner work life impacts your work in 3 ways:


  1. Greater attention to tasks: you strive for higher quality and have more pride in  your work
  2. Higher engagement in the project: you are willing to overcome obstacles that come up and be creative
  3. Intention to work hard: you don’t want to let your colleagues down, so are eager to go the extra mile


Or, as they describe,


…, people perform better when their workday experiences include more positive emotions, stronger intrinsic motivation (passion for the work), and more favorable perceptions of their work, their team, and their leaders.


And of the 3 contributors to a positive inner work life, the authors found the progress principle to be the most impactful:


… of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work.


They observed that the most commonly mentioned element on good days was making progress, with 76% of the diaries highlighting it. By contrast, on bad days, only 26% said whether they had any progress.


While not discussed in detail, the authors claim their statistical analysis shows the influence of progress is more significant than that of catalysts or nourishers.


In some sense, the idea that a positive experience leads to higher performance seems obvious. But the reason why Amabile and Kramer emphasize this point is to counter a common business practice. And that is to use high pressure and fear to get more out of people.


They claim (though do not cite) that these negative tactics work well in the short term but are ineffective longer term producing more harm than good. And that by focusing on progress, you can still get a lot out of people without the negative drawbacks.


In summary, a positive inner work life is vital to generating high performance. And progress is the most crucial element to creating that positivity. But as shown earlier, there are several elements to progress, of which small wins are just one. So, how much of a role does it play? That is covered in the next takeaway.


Takeaway 2: Prioritize Making Small Wins as They are the Dominant Progress Drivers


Major progress indeed comes from big wins. But the problem is if you think that is the only way to move forward.  Big wins require a tremendous input of time, energy, and other resources. And they typically behave like step-functions, meaning for the longest time, you see nothing, and then boom, you see a jump.


In short, big wins are all or nothing. Either you hit the target, or you don’t. There is no partial credit. As a result, if you strike out, the setback is significant since no recognition is placed on the invested effort or creativity. The emphasis is solely on the output. Hence, this can have a demoralizing impact on performance, especially for cutting-edge type work, which involves a lot of unknowns and is, therefore, risky by nature.


So, big wins are great if you always knock them out, but relying on big wins is ineffective as a motivational source for performance. They simply don’t happen often enough, are expensive to generate, and, if not achieved, can be devastating.


So, what happens with the teams on their good and bad days?


Recall the authors found that high performance is tied to a positive inner work life which in turn is created by positive work events, aka good days.


When examining the diary entries, the authors noted that nearly 67% of the positive events were small in nature. In other words, big wins don’t happen that often – not surprisingly, given their cost. So, as you might expect, small wins are easier to generate, given their size. So, you can get them at a higher frequency where they play a major role in making a day positive.


But more surprisingly, Amabile and Kramer found that 28% of the small wins triggered large positive reactions.  The authors write:


… even events that people thought were unimportant often had powerful effects on inner work life.


Note these small wins can take the form of completing tasks, discovering a solution to an obstacle, or hearing a job well done from a coworker or manager. In other words, their impact was limited relative to the rest of the project but did have a positivity boost for the employee. Small wins make them feel better about themselves, their work, and their environment, thereby increasing positive emotion, motivation, and perception, hence a positive inner work life.


So, small wins play a predominant role in good work days.


But what’s the impact on performance?


In their analysis, they observed that when employees had a positive inner work life (better mood, perception, motivation), they had a 50% increase in the odds of having a creative idea. Unfortunately, the authors don’t go into the details for the other dimensions, but state they found similar positive trends in productivity, commitment, and collegiality.


While they don’t explicitly link small wins to performance, you can infer the following logical chain: the majority of the positive events are small in nature; small wins are one of the components of the progress principle; as progress is the most impactful influence of performance, you can extrapolate that small wins are correlated to higher performance.



Takeaway 3: Take these 6 Actions to Promote Progress


Aside from small wins, Amabile and Kramer suggest 6 recommendations that managers can use to help their team perform well:


  1. Set clear goals and objectives and their meanings: let people know the value of their contributions toward goal progress
  2. Allow autonomy: let folks have a say in how to do the work
  3. Provide resources: make sure people have access to what they need to get the job done
  4. Allow ample time: create reasonable deadlines and workloads that are low to moderate time pressure
  5. Provide support and expertise: assist people when they need help
  6. Help people learn from “failure”; teach mistakes as opportunities to learn rather than to assign blame and fault; create a safe psychological climate.


Doing the above increases the odds of creating a positive inner work life and hence, higher performance. The authors noted that the ratio of progress events to setbacks for the highest-performing teams was about 5.33. Basically, 5 wins for every setback.


In contrast, the lowest-performing team experienced a progress-to-setback ratio of 0.47, almost 2 setbacks for every progress event.


Along with the above, the authors state:


Similarly, as a manager, you must keep the progress loop in motion by continually facilitating progress and removing obstacles.


This last comment about removing obstacles is interesting as it highlights the role of negative events, which is expanded further in the next takeaway.



Takeaway 4: Avoid Negative Events as They are Stronger than Positive Ones


This takeaway is odd since the book’s theme focuses more on positive elements. For example, the book has individual chapters on the progress principle, the catalyst factor, and the nourishment factor but none on their negative counterparts.


In fact, Amabile and Kramer devote only 2 pages to “The Power of Negative Events.” Yet, they start with the section below:


If you want to foster great inner work life, focus first on eliminating the obstacles that cause setbacks. Why? Because one setback has more power to sway inner work life than one progress incident.


A synopsis of their key points is listed:


  • The effects of setbacks on emotion are stronger than progress; the power of setbacks to diminish happiness is more than 2x as strong as the power of progress to boost happiness. The power of setbacks to increase frustration is more than 3x as strong as that of progress to decrease frustration.
  • Small losses can overwhelm small wins. The asymmetry between the power of setbacks and progress events applies to even relatively minor triggers.
  • People write longer diary narratives on negative events compared to neutral to positive ones. This suggests that people expend more cognitive and emotional energy on bad events than on good ones.
  • Other types of negative events – not just setbacks – are more potent than their mirror-image positive events.
  • The connection between mood and negative work events is almost 5x stronger than the connection between mood and positive events.
  • Employees recall more negative leader actions than positive ones and remember the negative actions more intensely and in more detail.


In short, a bad event is more impactful than a positive one. In other words, you’re better off if you can prevent bad events from happening compared to facilitating positive events, and yet, much of the book does not discuss that.


And the book doesn’t call out whether their recommended practices (listed in the previous takeaway) promote good events or whether their value lies in preventing bad ones. Perhaps, that isn’t important, but the next takeaway attempts to connect how negative events and using small wins to address them may be the critical link.


Takeaway 5: Strive for Small Wins as They Mitigate Negative Impacts


This last takeaway is not from the book but inspired by the issues raised during the writing of this review.


Takeaway 4 suggests avoiding negative events because of their more substantial influence. The challenge is bad events aren’t something you strive for but happen despite our best attempts to avoid them. True, elements like providing a positive work environment, giving constructive feedback, and being supportive go a long way.


But the negative counterpart to progress, which is setbacks, is harder to avoid. Yes, having clear goals, reasonable deadlines, and adequate resources reduce the odds of things falling behind. But these don’t prevent setbacks from happening. By their nature, they are unplanned and unexpected.


But small wins may be the key to mitigating their impact.


Consider that when you embark on a new project or challenge, your enthusiasm may create a more aspirational than a realistic goal. On top of it, you may be suffering from the planning fallacy, where you underestimate how long projects take as well as overestimate how much you can get done.


In other words, you create an ambitious goal and have a work plan that will take longer and harder than you think.


These conditions can lead to frustration and disappointment, thereby increasing the odds of creating a negative inner work life. You get upset that things are taking longer than expected, and you’re not moving as fast as you thought while the goal seems far away.  Incidentally, this worsens if the goal is personally meaningful to you. In that case, it’s not unusual to view any setback as a negative reflection on you – you’re not good enough else you would be moving ahead. That thinking leads to a negativity spiral as you strive harder and become more ambitious when reality tells you to scale back. (Consider, if you can’t lift 10 pounds, you don’t up the target and try to raise 100 to prove you are good enough. You lower it.)


In short, to avoid these bad events, you are better off focusing on creating conditions for small wins. Make sure you break tasks into smaller sub-tasks or create progress markers for your goal. And that you have a good way to measure progress, not just completed deliverables. Reward or praise yourself for trying to move ahead, not just celebrate when things are done.


By doing the above, you increase the odds of small wins happening. This creates a track record, which acts as a buffer to defend against inevitable, unpredictable setbacks. You know you can succeed and can look back at your small wins when you hit a stumbling block. This enables you to rebound and recover quickly to regain your progress.


And if you find that you are still not where you want to be despite making progress, at least you know it’s not effort. At that point, be ready to reassess and refactor your goals, as you may have sought the bridge too far.


In summary, small wins give you the confidence and momentum to buffer against negative events.


Cons: Gaps and Issues


Despite a beautiful premise that small wins may be the key to work success, The Progress Principle mangles the messaging.


When you read the complete book title, “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work,” you might think the Progress Principle is about small wins. But when you read the authors’ definition of the Progress Principle, you wonder:


… of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work.


There are a few issues with this statement.  First, there is no mention of small wins, unlike the callout in the title. In fact, small wins are discussed in detail only on 3 pages in the book. Small events get more coverage, but those can be good or bad.  Small wins have a role in progress, but it’s one of 4 contributors, along with goal completion, forward movement, and breakthroughs. Progress has an entire chapter dedicated to it, but the small wins’ role is not discussed in detail. So, are small wins a major driver in progress compared to the other 3? Yes, kinda, sorta, maybe. It’s buried in there.


Second, no definition is provided for what small events are. So, you get the feeling the researchers could have cherry-picked their interpretations of the diary entries. In short, how would you define small wins if you wanted to apply this insight? (The earlier examples are from other texts, but not from this book). Perhaps, it’s self-evident, but what makes sense to you may not be what the author had intended. There is no way to tell.


Finally, even meaningful work is not explained or expanded on. Does the term refer to what advances the project or what it means to you? In other words, what’s essential to the project may not align with your interests, nor may it rank high on your value system. What are they counting?  Again, it’s not clear.


Another frustration is their overall model is complicated. To start, they state that 6 elements (progress principle, catalysts, and nourishers and their negative counterparts) influence inner work life, which is measured along 3 dimensions (emotions, motivations, and perceptions). And that the quality of inner work life impacts performance, described by 4 variables (creativity, productivity, commitment, and collegiality).


Unfortunately, there is no detailed explanation for why the model is structured this way. In other words, you get an incomplete picture of how emotions-motivations-perceptions (inner work life) affect creativity, productivity, commitment, and collegiality (performance measures). For example, the authors state that positive emotions can increase creativity by 50%, but that’s it. There is no further discussion of emotion’s effect on other performance measures, nor do you get any expansion of motivation-perception on performance.


Nor are you given a sense for a good or bad day, what determines that description: emotion, motivation, perception, a majority of the 3?  Or, given the impact of negativity, only one needs to be strong enough to ruin the entire day? So, a good day has nonnegative emotion-motivation-perception across the board? Hard to tell.


The point is a model should never be more complicated than it needs to be. If you aren’t going to describe the impact of each element, then you are wasting the reader’s time and leaving them wondering are the other parts essential or not.


Going back to the first point, one of the book’s main selling points was its subtitle, “Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.” As stated earlier, the article that led me to read the book is “The Power of Small Wins.” Unfortunately, the book doesn’t message that claim strongly. The authors state that progress is essential and, separately, mention small wins are a part of progress. But nowhere do they explicitly call out that small wins are progress’s most influential (or perhaps most frequent) element. As stated in Takeaway 2, you must infer that from the text.


A further irritation is the lack of statistical rigor in their data analysis. Buried in the footnotes of their Appendix, which describes the diary analysis in detail, the authors note that the impact of positive events on progress was not statistically significant at the 0.05 confidence level but was at the 0.1 level. While it’s good that they highlight this deviation (using 0.05 is standard practice), it also means the connection of positive events to progress may require a larger sample size to be on stronger statistical grounds. Translation: they need to study more people to show that progress is impactful.


Finally, the same statistical analysis shows the impact of negative events is much more substantial (not as ambiguous compared to the positive results). So, this begs the question of why didn’t they emphasize this aspect. Part of the reason is the authors’ bias towards showing positive inner work life is better long term than negative factors.


This view is supported by the fact there are dedicated chapters to the progress principle, catalysts, and nourishers but no comparable coverage to the negative counterparts. A more balanced analysis would have presented both sides, but this would show that the data weighs the negative stronger than the positive.


So, while it’s good they don’t discount the negative data, they also don’t present it with the same weight as the positive elements, making for a confusing narrative when you scratch deeper.


Because of the above reasons, the book, unfortunately, falls short of what it could have delivered.


Summary and Recommendation


In summary, in The Progress Principle,  Amabile and Kramer discuss that the key elements differentiating high and low-performing teams lie in whether they have good or bad days. And that progress (and small wins) contribute to high performance by facilitating good days. Below are the 5 takeaways that you can use:


  1. Focus on making progress to create the positive inner work life that leads to high performance
  2. Prioritize making small wins as they are the dominant progress drivers
  3. Take these 6 actions to promote progress 
    1. Set clear goals and objectives and their meanings: let people know the value of their contributions toward goal progress
    2. Allow autonomy: let folks have a say in how to do the work
    3. Provide resources: make sure people have access to what they need to get the job done
    4. Allow ample time: create reasonable deadlines and workloads that are low to moderate time pressure
    5. Provide support and expertise: assist people when they need help
    6. Help people learn from “failure”; teach mistakes as opportunities to learn rather than to assign blame and fault; create a safe psychological climate.
  4. Avoid negative events as they are stronger than positive ones
  5. Strive for small wins as they mitigate negative impacts


I had high hopes for the book, but the analysis and messaging are incomplete and poorly balanced, as discussed in the Cons. The authors have a great topic; if they truly focused on the power of small wins and simplified their model, they would have done far better.


As it stands, my recommendation is to Avoid buying this book. Rather than reading this 200+ page tome, you can get the key book findings from reading the authors’ 2 articles published in the Harvard Business Review,  The Power of Small Wins and Inner Work Life: Understanding the Subtext of Business Performance.


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