Small Wins

“Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?”

Those were Steve Jobs’ words to successfully complete his pitch to John Sculley, the president of Pepsi at the time, to become Apple’s chief executive.

Not all of us may feel like we change the world, but it turns out that something much simpler can be enough to ignite our emotions, fuel our motivation, and trigger the feeling that we are creating innovative work.

In a now classic study, professors at Harvard Business School conducted an exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by 12,000 knowledge workers. They discovered 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.

The more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.


This is the Progress Principle


The idea is that small wins can boost your inner work life tremendously. Many of the progress events research participants reported represented only minor steps forward. Yet they often evoked significant positive reactions.


Celebrate the small wins


The bigger vision always remains, but it won’t be enough to focus on it alone, make sure you create small, achievable goals that will allow you to see your progress more clearly. Very ordinary, incremental progress can increase people’s engagement in the work and their happiness during the workday.

In the study above, across all types of events, participants reported a notable proportion (28%) of incidents that had a minor impact on the project had a major impact on people’s feelings about it. Small but consistent steps forward, shared by many people are critical to the overall performance of organizations.


How to help your team celebrate the small wins


As a manager, the essentials for catalysts to work are:

  1. Setting clear goals

  2. Allowing autonomy

  3. Providing sufficient resources and time

  4. Helping with the work

  5. Openly learning from problems and successes

  6. Allowing a free exchange of ideas

  7. Creating a culture of help and support

Celebrating the small wins is one of the many ideas we address in our Workshop about increasing your productivity at work. We’re offering a 25% on it for April. You can forward this to a friend who might be interested.

On a separate concluding note, years after the debatable finish of Scully as Apple’s CEO, here is what he comments on what his actions: “I now know how important it is to have an open mind and be respectful of the fact that there’s more than one way to think about a problem or solution,”. Sculley says to be successful in life, “you’ve got to be a good listener, you’ve got to be open-minded, and see things from different perspectives. And you’ve got to have curiosity.”

How good are we at that?



Amabile, Teresa M., and Steven J. Kramer. "The power of small wins." Harvard Business Review 89.5 (2011): 70-80.