Building Momentum for Change: The Progress Principle

How sprint working can be a powerful driver of organisational change and employee engagement

In 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 reprioritisation 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 — it’s 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 affect.

This makes intuitive sense, and yet so much in the workplace seems designed to inhibit or discourage. 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. Reprioritising 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.

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Originally published at Building The Agile Business.