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Small wins beat stretch goals in collaborative projects

Imaginetable of small trophies you’re about to start a new collaborative, cross-timezone project and you are hoping to get the whole team on board with your favorite online workspace. Do you set up the whole space and walk them through each capability: group calendar, project management tool, resource library of helpful documents, collaborative editing, etc? Or, do you begin by sharing a single document that starts out as the agenda and develops into a lab notebook?  Do you go for the stretch goal (full-blown on-line workspace) or the small win (starter collaboration document)?

While there is no single accepted way to kick off a group in a collaborative process, my experience and the available research says you should start small with a specific, achievable goal, rather than trying to implement a full technology platform at the same time as you’re organizing the project.  Stewart Mader, author of the book Wikipatterns, says that you should focus on the work; help people see the value from the work and the rest will follow.

Organizational scholar Karl Weick wrote in 1984:

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. Small wins are controllable opportunities that produce visible results.

This still holds true today. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer followed 238 professionals in 26 creative teams across seven companies and three industries, gathering over 12,000 person/days of data. They report their results in the forthcoming book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. In a recent talk I attended, Prof. Amabile described how progress in meaningful work is the most important factor in people’s engagement. This progress doesn’t have to include a breakthrough — just maintain forward momentum.

Keep these ideas in mind when you start your next collaboration project. Go for the small wins, rather than the stretch goal, and focus on the work rather than the tools. Follow Georgina‘s advice and take a “tools last” approach to collaboration. She says, “tools are not the process, nor are they the work. Tools are there to make complex tasks easier or more efficient for your team.” Get the team’s work started, then see what tools will be most helpful.

What is your experience?  Do you agree that small wins beat out stretch goals for kicking off a new collaborative project?

Photo courtesy Flickr user Snap.

3 Responses to “Small wins beat stretch goals in collaborative projects”

  1. Great article. As a collaboration software vendor demoing products, that’s the lesson we’ve learnt. Tailor your demo to the specific pain points of your prospect, rather than doing an all out product demo and overwhelming the prospect. Same holds true for any user I would think.


  2. Terri – You are dead right that small wins drive immediate learning, engagement and performance. Scholars like Weick, Amabile, Kramer and others confirm what my partners and I have been showing for 50-plus years: adults learn best by doing. Establishing a new team to work on a complex project always involves learning – about how to work together, how to use the tools at hand, and ultimately how to produce the results expected from the project. The best way to focus that learning is to carve off a breakthrough goal that’s a fast start toward the bigger result they are shooting for, and commit to nailing it in 100 days or less. This is not the opposite of stretch – it actually drives stretch but within a more motivating and reachable terrain. I’ve seen hundreds of teams challenge themselves to deliver a remarkable breakthrough result – and succeed – when they adopt a simple ‘rapid results’ project structure. Sometimes it’s called rapid prototyping or RAD (rapid applications development) or a name that fit a less technical environment. The principles are the same. The results are real. And they can add up very quickly to extraordinary momentum. To see some other examples, visit