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Quick Hits: Small Successes

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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