The Progress Principle – book review

TheProgressPrincipleOver the summer months, I’ve been reading books that, although not specifically about collaboration, encourage us to think differently about how we work with others to make a change, have an impact or get things done. So far, the books I’ve reviewed – The Athena Doctrine and To Sell is Human – have both challenged long-established beliefs about how people do business. This is the same with my latest read – “The Progress Principle: using small wins to ignite joy, engagement and creativity at work” by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.

Amabile is one of my favourite researchers on the management of creativity. We’ve referred to her previous work on a couple of occasions before – here and here. “The Progress Principle” looks to help managers re-think their involvement in how they fuel motivation and creativity in their employees.

The Big Idea

Amabile & Kramer set out to investigate what led employees to do great work. They undertook research across a number of firms, asking 238 knowledge workers – professionals whose work requires them to solve complex problems creatively – to anonymously complete diary entries over approximately 4 months, mainly related to a specific project that they were working on.  Each day, the participants received an e-mail with several questions to answer.

“The Progress Principle” centres on inner work life – “the conditions that foster positive emotions, strong internal motivation, and favourable perceptions of the colleagues and the work itself”. This provides insight into when organisations are likely to see great and long-term performance in their teams.  Amabile & Kramer analysed nearly 12,000 daily diary entries and found that 76 percent of the best days recorded involved progress – “making headway on meaningful work”. It didn’t need to be a significantly large event to have a positive impact on inner work life.

So, through a range of case studies (both good and bad) and statistical analyses, “The Progress Principle” describes what managers can and should be doing to encourage more creativity and to support their employees in doing great work.

The Main Principles

Amabile & Kramer explain the three components of inner work life – emotion, perception and motivation – and how they relate to creativity:

  1. Emotion.  Although, the authors hadn’t asked any of their respondents to report back on their emotions, nearly all (80%) of them did. They concluded – even though many try to ignore it – that work can’t be separated from personal feelings, and as a result, they can have positive or negative effects on creative output.
  2. Perception.  The way that employees view their organisation and leaders is related to their performance. Again this is personal, based on how that individual makes sense of their situation, and their own ‘back story’. Factors such as when companies are seen as collaborative, open to new ideas and having an innovative vision, lead to positive perceptions and has a good impact on creativity.
  3. Motivation.  Although managers have long believed that extrinsic motivators – e.g. rewards or the pressure of extremely tight deadlines – is what drives employees to perform better, it was actually intrinsic motivators that led people to work more effectively. That is, when people feel they are doing meaningful work, are interested by it and driven by the challenge of the work itself.

Along with progress, Amabile and Kramer identified two other influences on inner work life – catalysts and nourishers:

  • Catalysts – actions that directly support project work, such as providing help, clear goals, resources, time, autonomy, idea flow and dealing with problems.
  • Nourishers – actions that directly support the person – respect, encouragement, comfort and other forms of social or emotional support.

The opposites of catalysts and nourishers, are inhibitors and toxins, respectively.

What was surprising to Amabile & Kramer in their research, was that most managers were not aware of the impact of ‘progress’ and their role in facilitating it. Even when ‘support for making progress’ was explicitly presented in a list of other factors (recognition, incentives, interpersonal support, clear goals) to 669 managers who were asked to rank its importance, it came last.

…And for Collaboration?

Collaboration is recognised throughout “The Progress Principle” as a key part of knowledge work:

“Project team work in most contemporary organizations is collaborative and complex, requiring ongoing problem solving and deep engagement. This was certainly true of the work that our study participants were doing. In settings where people must work together to solve challenging problems, high performance has four dimensions: creativity, productivity, commitment, and collegiality”

Although “The Progress Principle” is largely focused on the longer-term organisational environment, much of this also shows what can be put in place to keep short-term collaborative projects and creative teams running smoothly. For example: ensuring that the work is interesting and challenging, clarifying goals at the outset of the project, whilst giving the team freedom to complete the work in their own way; paying attention to the importance of relationships in teams, and matching people to teams which considers their personalities and work styles as well as their skills.

Key Takeaways

“The Progress Principle” emphasises that innovation and creativity can’t be separated from the people doing it – it can be all too easy to expect it to just happen! New ideas and great performance means also fostering the environment that supports it. This is about clearly understanding what drives people and creative teams to work productively, such as them feeling that they’re doing meaningful work, as well as managers recognising that a large part of their role is about facilitating progress and removing the barriers that may prevent it.

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