Neil Perkin: The progress principle and building organisational momentum
If there’s one lesson that we should have learned by now in response to the rapidly shifting contexts which just about every business is facing now, it’s the need for greater agility, manoeuvrability and continuous improvement. In our book Building the Agile Business, we focus on how sprint working can be a powerful driver of both rapid organisational learning and strategic adaptability. Done right it can not only create new value and be applied in the creation of new products and services, but can support far wider organisational change and be used to find a way through key business challenges, and re-orient the business towards heightened levels of experimentation.
Learning and continuous improvement are embedded in the fabric of this working methodology (not least in the regular retrospectives that are conducted at the end of each sprint). Flexibility and adaptation are too, in the regular re-prioritisation of the backlog or jobs to be done. As continuous learning generates improved ways of getting stuff done and achieving key goals, sprint working can support growing organisational momentum towards an over-arching vision or objective.
But there is something else about sprint working, another way in which it can contribute to building momentum for change, that is less often discussed — its role as an inclusive, motivating, energy-generating way of working. When I’ve been demonstrating the benefits of operating in sprints to clients in talks and workshops, a couple of people have mentioned to me Teresa Amabile’s concept of the Progress Principle.
At the heart of this concept is a simple, but very compelling idea — the power of progress:
‘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.’
Amabile’s extensive workplace research (based on thousands of daily surveys) has shown that above more visible and extrinsic rewards and incentives, a key driver of creative and productive performance is the quality of what she calls a person’s ‘inner work life’, or that mix of emotions, motivations and perceptions experienced over the course of a work day:
‘…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.’
A positive inner work life, characterised by these qualities, is fundamental in enabling higher levels of achievement, commitment and even collaboration. When the researchers looked at the triggers that shaped how positive this inner work life was on any given day, it was meaningful progress (however large or small) made by the individual or team that was the key determinant. Setbacks against progress created a negative inner work life. Surrounding this were ‘catalysts’ (those actions that directly support work) and ‘nourishers’ (including encouragement, respect or recognition) that contributed towards positive emotions. ‘Inhibitors’ (things that negate progress), and ‘toxins’ (things that discourage or undermine) had the opposite effect.
This makes intuitive sense, and yet so much in the workplace seems designed to inhibit or discourage rapid progress. Waterfall processes can often involve lengthy time periods where work is done but with limited visible signs of value (particularly value for the end users) being generated. It is often characterised by large project teams that become unwieldy and difficult to move forwards at pace. How often have we stepped away from a project and returned later only to find that nothing has really moved on from where we left it? Sprint working is not a panacea, but the point about it is that it is designed around tangible, visible progress. Releasing early and often. Tracking velocity against goals. Re-prioritising based on learning.
It is my belief that digital transformation is as much about employee experience as it is about customer experience. And if employee engagement is so key to the process we need to consider ways of working and operating that are intrinsically motivating and emotionally engaging. We need to create a positive sense of progress to generate momentum.
For more on the ‘how’ of digital transformation, and to understand how to ensure your organization is fit-for-purpose for the digital-empowered world, read Neil’s book, Building the Agile Business Through Digital Transformation (Kogan Page, April 2017).
Neil is a renowned blogger, writer and the founder of Only Dead Fish, a digital and media consultancy that specialises in applying strategic understanding of digital and emerging media technologies to help businesses optimise their effectiveness within the new, networked communications environment.
Neil is the author of the upcoming book on organisational agility and digital transformation, ‘Building The Agile Business’ (Kogan Page, April 2017). He is a regular keynote speaker across Europe on digital transformation and digital strategy, and has been named by BIMA (British Interactive Media Association) as one of the most influential people in the UK digital industry for two years in a row. He curates the global quarterly series of Firestarters thought leadership events on behalf of Google, is a keynote speaker on the Google Squared programme and has worked with market-leading global businesses including The Financial Times, BBC, Warner Bros, the UK Government, Unilever and YouTube. He is an associate of The Futures Agency, a collaboration of some of the world’s leading forward thinkers and futurists, and is also the co-founder of the Fraggl Twitter curation app.