Innovation/Global Crisis Blog

 How “Small Wins” Unleash Creativity:  The Progress Principle

By Shlomo Maital

  A great deal of research on creativity  (e.g. neurobiology, functional MRI, etc.) is fascinating but of no immediate use.   In contrast, Harvard Prof. Teresa M. Amabile’s work always leads to creativity-enhancing tools.   Her new book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to ignite Joy (written with her husband, Steven J. Kramer, a clinical psychologist), is among her best work.  It has a clear and simple message:

     Our best days at work occur when we make even small progress toward our work objectives.  Our worst days at work occur when we are hindered from making such progress.  The key to unleashing creativity is “a sense of making progress on meaningful work” and creating an environment in which such progress is fostered. 

  What is interesting is that according to Amabile, managers just don’t get it.  They continue to believe the key to creativity is salaries, bonuses, incentives, rewards.  Only 5 per cent of all managers she surveyed ranked ‘progress’ as the number one key motivator. 

   Amabile and Kramer studied 238 white-collar employees at seven large organizations, and asked each to keep a work diary, with daily entries, for about 10 weeks, in which workers “describe one event that stands out in your mind” daily.  There were 12,000 diary entries in all.  They define “inner work life” as “the confluence of perceptions, emotions and motivations that individuals experience as they react to and make sense of their work day”.  In the diaries,  salaries and bonuses barely registered!  (So much for the fundamental theory of economics!).  But diary entries that reported work progress often showed an “inner work life” surge that in turn increased the likelihood of creative productivity. 

     What I learn from this work is this:  There are two types of ‘rewards’, extrinsic (money, praise, bonuses) and intrinsic (internal satisfaction).  Small, frequent intrinsic rewards (“progress”) are crucial in spurring productivity, because, I believe, they build our own image of our self-effectiveness (capability), which in turn empowers and triggers creativity.    Ironically, the more managers stress extrinsic rewards, the less intrinsic rewards flourish.  

    Managers:  Give your team autonomy.  Ask its members from time to time what you can do that will help them succeed.  Give them resources (Amabile says cheapskate managers hurt creativity rather than spur it).  Make the work, or project, itself its own reward.  Find people, especially, for whom the work itself is the main reward.  And, then, watch the ideas flow!   Remember:  “People are more creative, productive, collegial, and committed to their work when they have a positive inner work life.” 

     Can anything be clearer, simpler, or more obvious – and less applied in practice? 

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