When the scale of change seems overwhelming, look for “small wins”
- 4 March 2020
- Posted by: David Mason
- Category: PSTA
The challenge of transforming social outcomes through major systems change can seem pretty daunting. But aiming for a series of small wins can help.
In his influential paper Small Wins: Redefining The Scale Of Social Problems, experimental psychologist Karl Weick noticed that perceiving challenges as huge made people seize up – disabling “the very resources of thought and action needed to change them”. Reviewing how progress was made in a range of areas including equal rights and environmental protection, Weick observed was that:
“The massive scale on which social problems are conceived often precludes innovative action because the limits of bounded rationality are exceeded…People often define social problems in ways that overwhelm their ability to do anything about them.”Karl Weick, Small Wins
Instead, breaking major social issues into smaller problems that can then be affected by small wins helps to create an environment where change is not overwhelming, and so therefore more likely to happen. In Weick’s eyes:
A small win is a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance. By itself, one small win may seem unimportant. A series of wins at small but significant tasks, however, reveals a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals.”Karl Weick, Small Wins
Small wins are like miniature experiments that test theories and generate information that facilitates learning and adaptation. As well as making the scale of change less daunting – focusing on a small win also provides a sense of progress that boosts motivation more than recognition or incentives.
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Small wins can also hugely influence motivation, by offering people a sense of progress and achievement. Research conducted by Harvard Business School asked asked 669 managers from a dozen companies to rank five managerial tools that can affect employee’s motivation and emotions – namely:
- recognition for good work
- interpersonal support
- having clear goals and
- making progress in the work
The managers ranked “recognition for good work ” as the most important factor in influencing employee’s motivation and emotions, while the vast majority of managers ranked support for making progress dead last as a motivator for their colleagues.
Which is remarkable, because when the same researchers conducted an exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by the knowledge workers the above respondents managed, they found that:
“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”Teresa Amabile & Steven J. Kramer, The Power of Small Wins, Harvard Business Review, May 2011