The young project manager was feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of his assignment. He was struggling. So, I asked him…
“Where do we find some small wins?”
Small wins help to create an environment where the big goals become manageable tasks.
In his 1984 article, Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems, Karl Weick defines small wins as a “series of concrete, complete outcomes of moderate importance that build a pattern that attracts allies and deters opponents.”
To generate small wins, the leader seeks “a series of controllable opportunities of modest size that produce visible results.”
Gaining Perspective is a Small Win
I let this project manager talk, just to let him air out his thinking and vent his frustration (which is a small win in itself). I then wrote a few questions on the white board:
- Does your boss ask about this project?
- Have you identified individuals who can support your mission, and have you asked for help?
- Do you have a formal issues log?
- Is there any start at project planning documentation? Tasks, due dates, responsibilities?
- Do we have a written definition of the problem?
Of those five questions, he could only say yes to the first one.
“That’s a small win. Let me give you a high five.”
We slapped hands. This small win was simple: a person in authority cared about the project (let me add that you can’t ever assume that a project remains on an executive’s radar). Next I challenged him,
“Let’s create another small win.”
The next small win was creation of an issues log to identify issues and record their status (as open or closed). That took an hour, but now we could see written statements of the problems that would need resolution.
The reward in this case was me telling him a joke. It wasn’t a particularly good joke, but the point was recognized: he was making progress and I was acknowledging it.
We continued and made progress. By the end of our meeting, the project manager had much more confidence in himself and in his ability to develop an solution to his strategic objectives. My reward to him (as if you haven’t already guessed it from the title),
“Let me buy you lunch.”
Three Rules for Creating Small Wins
1. Break down big goals into smaller objectives that are more concrete and short term.
I look for opportunities to apply the “de’s and dis:” De-compose, de-construct, and dis-ambiguate. Consider this technique,
Use the phrase “inch-pebbles” rather than “milestones” in your planning.
There are 160,934.4 centimeters in a mile for those of you that use the Metric system; so there are many places to note accomplishment of a small win.
2. Be generous with rewards (for yourself and for others). But don’t overdo it: Use this rule small wins = small rewards. Here are the small rewards that I offered:
- We will exchange high fives.
- I’ll tell you a joke.
- I’ll buy lunch.
3. Don’t let methodology get in the way of letting good things happen. Many organizations have created structured project processes that dictate step-by-step what should be done.
The problem with these is that they work for routine situations but are ill-suited for non-routine, complex, and strategic situations. Remember,
An opportunistic and experimental mindset attracts success.
More Ideas for Recognizing Small Wins
Here are some more ideas that I have seen or used.
- I know a manager who lets his facial hair grow as a software release date approaches. When the delivery is made, he shaves the growth.
- Ask questions that open you to learning and opportunity. Facts are your friends. Ask what is known, unclear, assumed?
- Find small wins in your own area of responsibility. Lead by example.
- Ask team members to write out the tasks on sticky notes. Sticky notes are a great tool, because they are tactile and if you make a mistake you can rip them up and write out a new note.
How have you created small wins? What else can you do when faced with a goal that seems overwhelming?
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