When it comes to growing your business, there’s no shortage of encouragement to “think big”. As the cliché goes, aim for the stars and you might just hit the moon. But how do you feel when you fail to meet your target, when the star is still hanging out of reach and the moon is effectively a consolation prize. Sure, you still have the moon but in your next round of strategy, how much genuine enthusiasm will you be able to muster for the next star? A growing number of entrepreneurs and business scientists are suggesting that while thinking big is fine and laudable, a focus on a small strategic win is more likely to achieve your “big” on a consistent basis.
First of all, there’s the question of brain chemistry. When you achieve a goal, you feel good and that “good” feeling occurs because your brain releases dopamine, creating that buzz you get when you experience success. The more you experience this reward, the more you are driven to re-experience it (let’s call it a positive addiction). And as the dopamine stimulates the pleasure centers, it also improves information retention, learning, and motivation.
The brain chemistry factor leads on to how you handle goal-setting and project planning. It stands to reason that rather than set up a scenario with a single big payoff or success preceded by a long, hard slog, it’s better to break things down into a series of smaller goals allowing for repeated success hits, leveraging the brains in-built motivation mechanism. Because the reverse is also true. If you fail, then the dopamine level drops and so does motivation. So set small, short-term goals that will carry you towards your big win.
Small strategic wins are cumulative. A much-touted sports example of this concept is the British cycling team. The performance director focused on what he called the “aggregation of marginal gains.” Put another way, his strategy was to improve every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, with those small gains then adding up to a world-beating improvement. And he did mean “every area” – not just the bikes, and the riders’ training regimes, but also health issues, the pillows they slept on at night, the best massage gel, and so on. It worked. The team won the Tour de France for the first time, took 70 percent of the cycling medals at the London Olympics, and then won the Tour de France again. Small wins.
This applies to the business arena too. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer authored the book, “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work”. When talking about the research that went into the Progress Principle, Amabile has said, “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. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.” A daily feeling of progress, achieved via small wins, leads to consistent high performance.
This fits with the views of behavioral expert, James Clear who cites the example of an acquaintance who wrote three books in under a year, simply by consistently producing 1,000 words per day. It’s his belief that as an entrepreneur or business owner you don’t have to work flat out, 16 or 18 hours a day in order to succeed. The old adage is work smarter, not harder but the philosophy of small but meaningful wins is about working consistently. Find a pace (whether it’s a couple of hours a day, or a level of productivity, whatever is dictated by your business) that is reasonable and possible and then simply maintain that pace. Business is a marathon not a sprint. You don’t have to work harder, you just have to keep running (even when you might want to stop).