Here is an excerpt from an article co-authored by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer that appears in the May 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review.
What is the best way to drive innovative work inside organizations?
Important clues hide in the stories of world-renowned creators. It turns out that ordinary scientists, marketers, programmers, and other unsung knowledge workers, whose jobs require creative productivity every day, have more in common with famous innovators than most managers realize. The workday events that ignite their emotions, fuel their motivation, and trigger their perceptions are fundamentally the same.
The Double Helix, James Watson’s 1968 memoir about discovering the structure of DNA, describes the roller coaster of emotions he and Francis Crick experienced through the progress and setbacks of the work that eventually earned them the Nobel Prize. After the excitement of their first attempt to build a DNA model, Watson and Crick noticed some serious flaws. According to Watson, “Our first minutes with the models…were not joyous.” Later that evening, “a shape began to emerge which brought back our spirits.” But when they showed their “breakthrough” to colleagues, they found that their model would not work. Dark days of doubt and ebbing motivation followed. When the duo finally had their bona fide breakthrough, and their colleagues found no fault with it, Watson wrote, “My morale skyrocketed, for I suspected that we now had the answer to the riddle.” Watson and Crick were so driven by this success that they practically lived in the lab, trying to complete the work.
Throughout these episodes, Watson and Crick’s progress—or lack thereof—ruled their reactions. In our recent research on creative work inside businesses, we stumbled upon a remarkably similar phenomenon. Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, we discovered the progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And 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.
The power of progress is fundamental to human nature, but few managers understand it or know how to leverage progress to boost motivation. In fact, work motivation has been a subject of long-standing debate. In a survey asking about the keys to motivating workers, we found that some managers ranked recognition for good work as most important, while others put more stock in tangible incentives. Some focused on the value of interpersonal support, while still others thought clear goals were the answer. Interestingly, very few of our surveyed managers ranked progress first. (See the sidebar “A Surprise for Managers.”)
A Surprise for Managers
If you are a manager, the progress principle holds clear implications for where to focus your efforts. It suggests that you have more influence than you may realize over employees’ well-being, motivation, and creative output. Knowing what serves to catalyze and nourish progress—and what does the opposite—turns out to be the key to effectively managing people and their work.
In this article, we share what we have learned about the power of progress and how managers can leverage it. We spell out how a focus on progress translates into concrete managerial actions and provide a checklist to help make such behaviors habitual. But to clarify why those actions are so potent, we first describe our research and what the knowledge workers’ diaries revealed about their inner work lives.
Inner Work Life and Performance
For nearly 15 years, we have been studying the psychological experiences and the performance of people doing complex work inside organizations. Early on, we realized that a central driver of creative, productive performance was the quality of a person’s inner work life—the mix of emotions, motivations, and perceptions over the course of a workday. How happy workers feel; how motivated they are by an intrinsic interest in the work; how positively they view their organization, their management, their team, their work, and themselves—all these combine either to push them to higher levels of achievement or to drag them down.
* * *
Teresa M. Amabile (email@example.com) is the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and the author of Creativity in Context (Westview Press, 1996).
Steven J. Kramer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an independent researcher, writer, and consultant in Wayland, Massachusetts. He is a coauthor of “Creativity Under the Gun” (HBR August 2002) and “Inner Work Life” (HBR May 2007). Their book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work is forthcoming from Harvard Business Review Press.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Sean Silverthorne for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
* * *
The View from Harvard Business (April 18, 2011)
Is this your boss? She meets with you on a project, then follows up over the next few days with an e-mail, a hallway conversation, a quick phone call and maybe even a text message. Are you being nagged? Micromanaged?
Nope. Your boss is actually engaging in behavior, annoying as it may seem, that will get you working on the project more quickly, according to new research from Harvard Business School’s Tsedal B. Neeley and Northwestern University’s Paul M. Leonardi and Elizabeth M. Gerber.
The practice works particularly well for time-pressured leaders who have no actual authority over team members, such as when individuals are brought together from across the organization to work on a project. (Managers with authority tend to send, at most, one follow-up and assume it will get done.)
The researchers studied the communication patterns of 13 project managers in half-a-dozen firms across the computing, telecommunications, and health care industries. The team recorded every activity in the managers’ workday, collecting a total of 256 hours’ worth of observations.
The key finding: Managers who are deliberately redundant as communicators move their projects forward more quickly and smoothly than those who are not.
A story about the research by Kim Girard can be viewed here.
Or read an abstract of the paper, How Managers Use Multiple Media, Neeley has published other interesting work on the dynamics of teams. Her paper Walking Through Jelly: Language Proficiency, Emotions, and Disrupted Collaboration in Global Work looked at the common practice, especially by multinationals, of adopting a common business language (often English) for all of the firm. This practice can trigger a cycle of negative emotional responses that interfere with collaborative relationships on the teams, according to the research.
* * *
Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. He has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at at Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily‘s first journalist based in Silicon Valley.
No brief commentary can do full justice to a concept as complicated – and as important — as flow, I realize, but it may be of interest and value to review a few key points about it.
1. Hungarian scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (“Cheeks-sent-me-high”) is generally credited with formulating the concept of flow based on decades of research. He published Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience in 1990.
Note: Bernie DeKoven is one of the most original thinkers among contemporary authors of business books. He recently pointed out to me that “actually, Csikszentmihalyi used the word ‘flow’ in his book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety published in 1975. Can you believe it? I’ve been quoting from it ever since.”
2. There are several ways of describing the state of flow. Here is mine, based on what I have learned from Csikszentmihalyi : Pretend that you are a basketball player who hits every shot, a putter who sinks every putt, a bowler who only makes strikes, a rifleman or archer who only hits bulls eyes, etc. You are oblivious to where you are, what time it is, who else is there, etc. Athletes call it “the zone.” Musicians call in “in the groove.” Gamblers call it “on a roll.” Activity seems effortless.
3. In a workplace, “flow” can be achieved but seldom sustained. Reasons vary.
4. A neurologist from Yale, Amy Arnsten, has conducted years of research on positive and negative arousal. Here is my take on her key points:
• One challenge for supervisors is to determine which level of stress is best for each worker for whom they are directly responsible: This is their “sweet spot” for peak performance.
• There are two critically important chemicals, dopamine and norpinephrine, that affect synapses in the prefrontal cortex: Not enough of dopamine and/or norpinephrine results in boredom, too much results in burn-out. Usually there are early-warning signs of insufficiency or excess.
5. It is important to create or locate optimal conditions (i.e. mental, emotional, and environmental) for experiencing “flow,” then take full advantage of “being at our best” for as long as possible.
* * *
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is professor and former chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. His previous books include Flow and The Evolving Self. Flow was identified during the 1993 NBC Super Bowl broadcast as the book that inspired Jimmy Johnson, then coach of the Dallas Cowboys. It was also a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Quality Paperback Book Club.
Amy Arnsten was raised in Maplewood, N.J. where she attended Columbia High School. She received her B.A. in Neuroscience from Brown University in 1976, and her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from UCSD in 1981. She did post-doctoral research with Dr. Susan Iversen at Cambridge University, and with Dr. Patricia Goldman-Rakic at Yale. Dr. Arnsten’s research has led to the development of guanfacine (IntunivTM) for the treatment of ADHD and related prefrontal cortical disorders.
Hugh MacLeod is among my favorite thinkers, writers, and artists. He constantly challenges the status quo…more often not, he challenges his own. I urge you to visit his website by clicking here.
This cartoon started life out as a trade show banner for gapingvoid. Trying to convey the idea of what gapingvoid was really all about, to compete strangers walking by.
Ever since I got addicted to Charlie Brown cartoons as a child, I’ve always believed in the power of cartoons.
As an art form, a form of literature, as a spiritual exercise, as a bringer of light, a bringer of mirth, as a form of entertainment.
Then as I was developing the Cube Grenade idea, I started to see them beyond the traditional confines of “Art”, and more and more, agents of change.
By that I mean, a cartoon with the right, mysterious chemistry of form and content COULD impact an organization in a positive way, to create REAL value, to create a spark that could ignite something unique and powerful.
Without buying huge chunks of expensive media, the way traditional advertising does.
Disrupting the status quo. In business, and the idea of of what a cartoon can be.
So far it’s been a splendid adventure.
* * *
Please click here to visit Hugh’s gallery. The artwork is for sale and at surprisingly reasonable prices, given the high quality.