Are You Making Progress If You Can't See It?
The Butterfly Effect, as fans of chaos theory and Ashton Kutcher movies know, alludes to the outsize impact of small changes made in the early stages of a system. It’s a staple of the time-travel genre: someone tramples on a fern in the Mesozoic Era and returns to find Upper Volta is the world’s reigning superpower.
In startup companies, each new hire is a butterfly with gale force winds latent in her wings. Startups are so fragile, change direction so swiftly, and are so reliant on the efforts of a few, that every action or inaction can make a palpable difference. That’s one reason startups are attractive to ambitious, self-motivated people. An employee flaps, and something happens. Everyone can see it.
As companies grow, most employees must flap much harder to make comparable ripples. Typically they flap en masse--in teams. That’s efficient but can obscure the contribution of the individual, not only to the company’s leaders but also to him or herself. The more that jobs are broken down--into parts of parts of parts of projects that are themselves parts of corporate strategy--the harder it is for individual employees to see where they’re having an impact.
I was thinking about butterflies while reading a new interview with Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile. Amabile is the author of the terrific book “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.” She argues that what motivates people--more than money, more than recognition--is the experience of forward momentum in meaningful work. Amabile spoke with the National Center for the Middle Market about how the Principle plays out in mid-sized companies eager to innovate more.
I hadn’t considered that the Progress Principle might face different challenges in companies of various sizes. Now, it strikes me that the Principle should be a guiding element--perhaps the guiding element--of growth-company scaling efforts. Does the 100th or 500th employee to join your company understand how his work affects the business as clearly and viscerally as did the first or fifth employee? Can he distinguish between his own progress--over which he has at least some control--and the progress of the team or business--over which he may not? Is he making progress on something leadership no longer cares about?
A purring Progress Principle is a natural consequence of effective employee alignment. (I know “alignment” is jargon, but I’m giving it a pass, along with the equally unlovely “empowerment.” At some point, buzzwords stop just buzzing and actually land some sting.) The place to start--what in chaos theory is known as “initial conditions”--is with open book management. Individual employee dashboards help too. The goal is to connect the dots, and then keep connecting the dots from individual actions to results. As companies grow, employees must learn what progress looks like at the micro-level of their own to-do lists and how that relates to the macro-level of their employers’ quarterly reports.
By the way, I’m not sure I’ve got the stuff about chaos theory exactly right. All I know about physics I learned from The Big Bang Theory. And Ashton Kutcher movies.