by Larry Solow
I was reminded again yesterday of the power of small successes.
I was consulting with a marketing managers about an important
problem-solving activity with a major customer. That planning
included recognizing the need for a kick-off meeting with several
key players. We prepared for that meeting, discussing the specific
objectives, agenda, and roles to be played. We also thought through
the "what if's;" what questions and/or resistance might
surface during the meeting and how they would be handled.
We held the meeting, accomplishing all our objectives.
As it happened, every "what if" we had discussed surfaced
during the meeting and was handled concisely and professionally,
to everyone's apparent satisfaction. The marketing manager was
extremely pleased with the results of the meeting, noting that
the pre-meeting planning had been a major contributor to the session's
success. She went on to express her increasing anticipation and
confidence in the problem-solving meeting to follow.
This little vignette reinforced two learnings
for me. First, the manager will be much more receptive to pre-meeting
planning in the future. Second, small successes (a successful
planning session and subsequent kickoff meeting) create an expectation
for more and greater successes to follow.
The behaviorist Dr. B. F. Skinner discuses positive
intermittent reinforcement: a stimulus which is positively recognized
at least occasionally, will tend to increase in frequency and
persist over a longer period of time. To the extent that small
accomplishments feel good to the person accomplishing them, and
are occasionally recognized by others, a person should feel motivated
to want more.
Self-fulfilling prophecy may also play a part
in the "quick hit" dynamic. Simplistically defined as,
"you get what you expect," several studies have documented
the subconscious power of people's expectations. When a teacher
was told she was teaching gifted students, their performance over
time represented a gifted population, even though the students
were "average." Similarly, a group of sales representatives
arbitrarily divided into high, average, and low achievers generated
sales revenues in line with those expectations. In this light,
as the marketing manager described earlier had several quick successes,
the positive expectations she began to generate for herself could
cause self-fulfilling dynamics to take hold.
"Quick hits" can also ease reactions to change. This
is a process by which uninformed optimism, the pumped up, naïve
enthusiasm that typically greets the beginning of a new project,
leads to informed pessimism. In later phases, the initial "high"
of the first stage is replaced by negative feelings as complexities,
problems, and issues surface. Quick hits can provide glimmers
of hope, and provide tangible results for team members to hold
on to while they are struggling through this phase of change.
It occurs to me to use this principle to motivate
myself. This could be kind of strange because to the extent that
I do it deliberately, I know the "game" I am playing
with myself. However, the principles should hold . In the past
when I've confronted a massive task, I've had success in "eating
the elephant one bite at a time," breaking the task down
into component parts. A logical extension would be to load some
of those early steps with a high probability of success. One theory
of human motivation is that people can "program" themselves
through using positive self-messages. So why not "program"
myself with quick successes?
I'm going to experiment with this and encourage
you to do so as well. You might try setting your initial expectations
small, and structure your experiment in a way that will provide
you with a "quick hit." Ask yourself outcome questions
as you plan your experiment-What do I want out of this? What will
it get us/me? How will I know? Think also of who can aid you in
your pursuit. Framing the experiment with these questions will
help you achieve a "quick hit." Try it!!
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