Foster agile team achievement by enabling small wins

Rick Freedman explores how IT project managers can use the findings of a recent study to enhance the contribution and execution of their agile teams.

You would think that we would know by now what motivates workers to innovate and create. With all the business schools, all the MBA students and their associated theses, all the professors who must "publish or perish," and all the self-help best-sellers about being your best and achieving the most, you might think that everything that needs to be said about this topic has been written, said, and reiterated. You would be wrong.

In fact, some recent research has shown that many of the common methods for motivating innovation, such as recognition or monetary rewards, are not in fact the best incentives. In a study released in the May 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review titled "The Power of Small Wins," researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer present a theory they call the progress principle: the idea that making progress in meaningful work is the most powerful incentive to creativity and innovation. Why am I discussing this theory in an article about IT project management? This simple idea is academic validation of one of the underlying philosophies of agile development: incremental, iterative progress against a valuable goal has the power to enhance people's perception of the project, to inspire imagination and ingenuity, and even to improve the emotional state of project participants.

The researchers started their investigation by asking 669 managers from around the world to respond to a survey ranking different incentives as motivational tools. Of the five tools ranked -- making progress, recognition, financial incentives, clear goals, and interpersonal support -- only 5% ranked progress at the top. In fact, the majority ranked progress dead last. The researchers then asked more than 200 workers, from seven companies and 26 project teams, to keep a daily diary of their joys, frustrations, and experiences as they tried to deliver creative, innovative project results. The results clearly indicated that people are more likely to create, innovate, and achieve when they are motivated by the work itself and are positive about their organization, team, and teammates.

One interesting finding of the research was that the best indicator of a "best day at work" was progress by the individual or team and that the best indicators of a "worst day" were setbacks or obstacles. Also coinciding with "best days" were catalysts, defined by the authors as actions that directly support the work of the team, and nourishers, such as recognition and encouragement. This gets to the point for us as project managers -- the best mechanisms we have for encouraging creativity and innovation are those actions that move the project forward, that encourage and recognize progress, and that help the team overcome barriers. This research finally puts the academic nail in the coffin of the high-stress hypothesis: that by creating a stressful, deadline-driven, high-anxiety environment we can spur people to overachieve. Project managers who have lived through death-march projects spurred by unrealistic budgets, schedules, and expectations knew this; now the research is there to back it up.

In validating the agile approach to project management, one finding in the study is key: even small, incremental progress toward the goal increases engagement and motivation. Some 28% of minor milestones marking forward progress were reported to have had a major impact on perception and satisfaction.

How can IT project managers use these findings to enhance the contribution and execution of their project teams? The authors, by invoking the example of a model manager, illustrated the behaviors that managers can exhibit to foster achievement:

  • Establish a positive environment: Create an atmosphere in which the importance of the work is emphasized. The project manager acts as an enabler and steers clear of blame or recrimination, and the team addresses setbacks or obstacles with a common effort and a direct plan.
  • Stay attuned to the team's activities and progress: By creating a nonjudgmental atmosphere, managers encourage team members to bring problems to the team and the manager, fearlessly. This idea validates the agile technique of the daily meeting; by bringing the team together daily to openly discuss progress and obstacles, agile teams institutionalize this concept and prepare the manager to provide support where it's needed.
  • Target any intervention to the situation: Based on the information revealed in the daily meeting, agile project managers intervene as needed to remove obstacles and keep the team on track. This research confirms this behavior. By keeping her finger on the pulse of the project, the effective manager can then focus her efforts directly on the issues at hand and ensure that the team has what is needed to make progress, and so self-reinforce their achievement.
  • Be a resource, not a foreman: The researchers use a phrase that I especially appreciate: They encourage managers to check in without seeming to check up. By becoming a real resource, by offering help and guidance rather than blame and oversight, and by bringing all information and issues to the team rather than hoarding knowledge or challenges, managers support their team's creativity and maturity and sustain their team's ownership of progress made.


IT project managers should be grateful to the researchers for their findings. They corroborate what intuitive project managers have known all along: solid progress, meaningful projects, and a positive, nonpunitive, and realistic environment enable teams to do their best work and be happier while doing it.