I there are many times when I have advised a client or an executive I was working with to break down large projects into small ones in order for the team to be able to rack some early “points” thus increasing confidence and building momentum. This seemed to me a good change strategy – helping people see that if small changes didn’t produce a calamitous outcome, maybe they would be more comfortable with larger ones. That has always made sense to me. Start small, and then build upon those little successes.
In her recent article, Laura Vanderkam argues there is a large danger with setting up easy wins – that since we all love the feeling of accomplishment these wins can feed our short-term need, while we take our eyes off the larger prize. She warns against the possibility that we get sort of addicted to the small accomplishments. And, if bosses listen to the advice of Laura Trice (see my recent article – The Power of Saying Thank You) and lavish us with praise for the small things this can seem sufficiently gratifying causing a diminishment of energy expended on the main goal.
I hadn’t thought about it in that way before, but it is an interesting point. When I think about some of the more satisfying accomplishments of my career, they were the ones I really worked hard at. It’s like the degree of satisfaction is proportional to how hard it was getting there.
In many of the cases I can think of, the projects sometimes seemed like they would never produce success, or we were going backwards nearly half of the time. In these cases however, we always had a leader who believed so strongly in the project (or the deadline was so overwhelming) that we were kept on course and never wavered in our effort.
Some of my more cynical colleagues argue that this business of needing small victories is partly a generational “problem” driven by what is sometimes referred to as the trophy generation. (see this WS Journal article – The ‘Trophy Kids’ Go to Work). The argument is that these younger people – born between about 1980 and 2001 were coddled by their parents and nurtured with a strong sense of entitlement throughout their school years where the belief was that everyone should ‘get a trophy’ or that scores don’t really matter. When these millennials finally hit the work force, they expected a constant stream of praise and recognition.
Which side of this debate you come down on is probably related to how old you are. So, like many things, I suppose the answer is not either or, but both. We need to be more generous in lavishing praise, recognizing accomplishments, and having more victories to celebrate. But we also need leadership with the vision and discipline to keep the pressure on, challenging us to strive harder in pursuit of the goals that are more important and strategic.