Small Wins, Big Results

“Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.”

—John Wooden

Despite the fact that we live in a culture that admires “big”—big breakthroughs, big ideas, big money, big muscles, big everything—wise coaches, whether from the world of education, industry or sports (like John Wooden), have long understood the power of small. Small wins, small improvements and small progress—when done with the right steps and in the right ways—fuel what can become remarkable performance and, perhaps more importantly, brighten the inner lives of the performers who achieve them.

Consider the evidence.

  • Four circles form a continuous path: 1. Plan, 2. Do, 3. Check, 4. Act. In the center is the text: "Kaizen - Continuous Improvement."In industries ranging from auto manufacturing to healthcare, the Japanese-inspired method of work involving continuous improvement—”kaizen”—has helped countless companies transform themselves. The power of transformation relies on big numbers of small improvements, not small numbers of big improvements. All added together, the benefits of these small wins—what one Japanese executive calls “little ups, everyday little ups”—has proven life changing, even lifesaving, for some organizations.
  • Research conducted by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer and published in their book, “The Progress Principle,” confirms that employees are motivated by small wins. As stated by the authors, “Even ordinary, incremental progress can increase people’s engagement in the work and their happiness during the work day.” Small steps in the right direction keep momentum up and spirits alive.
  • The mind does not know the difference between a real threat and an imagined one. Therefore, the mind may respond better to small versus large.
  • Neuroscience confirms that the brain’s amygdala—largely responsible for the fight-or-flight response—functions very well in the face of real threat. Blood flows to extremities and away from the brain. Vision becomes focused. Hormones course through the body, preparing for emergency. The trouble is, a threat does not have to be real for the amygdala to go into action. For example, a goal that appears too big, too far out and almost impossible to reach can trigger fight or flight. Instead of rationally or creatively planning to execute the goal, our brains ready us for battle with it. We wind up resisting, avoiding and procrastinating. A smaller goal—less daunting and frightening—is much more easily and creatively executed. Small trumps large.
  • Small wins lead to big results. One of our clients has a manager who shared his favorite spirit-boosting strategy. He makes sure to score a small win each morning. How does he do it? He exercises. Plain and simple. Once upon a time, he started with just a few minutes of exercise and, over time, improved his time in small doses and increments. The biggest bonus? The benefits of daily exercise have spilled over to other aspects of his life and work. Research confirms that the spillover effect happens for many who engage in exercise—not just our client.

The big takeaways? If you’re an employee, accomplish a small win each day. Note the win. Relish it and celebrate it. If you’re a manager, harness the power of small wins to motivate. Help employees see their own progress.

Where can you use the power of small in your job or organization?

What small habits could lead to big, long-lasting results?

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