Haste Makes Waste

TL;DR - The Progress Principle

25 October 2020

WillowTree has a growing list of career development resources which are foundational to its core values and culture. There’s usually a solid pamphlet worth of valuable information in them, but you can’t sell a pamphlet so the authors keep writing books instead.

I’m on a mission to condense each one of these texts into its most salient points. I’ll read them, so you don’t have to.

Let’s start with The Progress Principle, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.

Link to Goodreads

  • The thesis of The Progress Principle centers around their definition of inner work life; the conditions that foster your day to day feelings, motivations, and perceptions on the job. Their primary claim is that promoting a positive inner work life is even more influential than compensation when it comes to attracting talent, or boosting productivity.

  • They went about studying this by collecting what are essentially diary entries from employees across seven companies (238 people total). Admittedly, that sample size is low, and it’s all self reported. You’d be forgiven for dismissing this study as anecdotal. They do still periodically share supporting research, which is interesting.

  • The ingredients for a healthy inner work life are broken up into three categories: progress, catalysts, and nourishers. Teresa and Steven want me to call them the “key three”, but I refuse, sorry.

    • Progress is the sense of accomplishing meaningful work, and far and away the biggest influence on success. You can positively influence this by setting sane, stable goals, by providing individuals with the autonomy to complete them, and taking a moment to celebrate your team’s wins (big and small). These actions are also called…

    • Catalysts! A catalyst is an event that directly helps work get accomplished. Other examples include adjusting your timeline, providing additional resources, or analyzing recent successes/failures for new strategies.

    • Nourishers are interpersonal interactions, where people are rad to each other. Teresa and Steven really like breaking things into categories, so they further separate these into events that build respect (by providing recognition or giving ideas serious consideration), encouragement (expressing confidence in someone, being enthusiastic in general), emotional support (acknowledging frustrations or setbacks), and affiliation (the sense of belonging to a group, or sharing a goal).

  • The opposite of these are setbacks in the work, inhibitors (events that hinder future progress), and toxins (interpersonal events that undermine people, and also Brussels sprouts).

  • A lot of space in this book is dedicated to recreating examples of these negative events in excruciating detail, so I’ll save you some time.
    • Don’t change your goals suddenly or silently; everyone should be aware of, and part of the discussion to, move a milestone.
    • Don’t do things that undermine trust, like speaking over people, shutting down ideas, or creating roadblocks for your peers.
    • Don’t a be a jerk, because it turns out if you’re mean to people they won’t work very hard for you.
    • Don’t create new problems through timidity, arrogance, or personal ego.
    • Don’t micromanage people or folks will feel demeaned and give up. Make sure your goals are reasonable and well-defined

  • Instead, effective leaders:
    • Constantly gather information that could be relevant the team’s work
    • Involve the team in the decision making process
    • Develop contacts with folks outside the team who can support it
    • Fight for a good project when it is threatened
    • Sing its praises and sell its value to others.

  • The book also identifies three processes by which changes to inner work life are evaluated by an individual. These include perceptions, emotions, and motivations. These are fairly self explanatory, so I’ll respect your intelligence and just give you the chart at the end of the chapter. (page 37)

Teresa and Steven posit: “Maybe people who are unhappy aren’t very productive?”

  • One concept regarding perception that I enjoyed, was that of a person’s backstory. That is to say, a person’s unique life experiences which influence the way they perceive things, such that two people may interpret the same event in different ways. I just really like the idea of a real life human having a theatrical backstory.
    • Mine is that I have amnesia and also that I was kidnapped by wolves as a baby and also that I’m the chosen one, but only the left half of me. Sellek, please don’t steal.

  • Types of motivation are broken up into extrinsic (cash money), intrinsic (love of the work), and relational/altruistic (I like my teammates a bunch / I want to help hospital patients).

  • Naturally the author’s positions are that the latter two are more impactful for getting people to do what you want. You should find opportunities to connect people with each other, or reinforce why a given piece of work is valuable (either in the grand scheme of things, or in relation to the specific project).

  • They also argue that there is an “incubation period” for positivity and negativity. They observed that mood of their participants seemed to increase the day after a positive interaction.

  • It is hypothesized in chapter four that people may be more innovative/creative immediately after succeeding on something.
    • They also refer to Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto. In it, the author commits to using a checklist of seemingly mundane activities before every surgery they perform. It includes things like introducing every member of the surgical team, verifying that everyone knows what side of the body is being operated on, etc. It ends up having a substantial impact in lowering their rate of complications.
    • The authors of The Progress Principle propose you could do the same to improve your performance over time, regardless of what type of project you’re working on. There’s a checklist on pages 170-171; it’s more or less the bullets of this article with “Did I?” prepended to them.

Foundational WillowTree values which you can spot in this book:

  • Feedback is crucial to creating the perception of progress, and mitigating the effect of setbacks. (pg. 81)

“The key, then, is to design each job so that, in the act of carrying out the work, people gain knowledge about the results of their effort.”

  • Psychological safety is also defined here, as “the ability to give feedback…without being shunned” (pg. 107).

  • Here’s their take on our core value of open communication:

“Clear, honest, respectful, and free-flowing communication is essential for sustaining progress, coordinating work, establishing trust, and conveying that people and their ideas have value…” (pg. 109)

  • Checking In, Not Checking Up - positive and negative examples of leadership are provided in chapter 8. Regarding ways that micromanagement can serve as an inhibitor or toxin:-
    • “Managers who get it wrong make four kinds of mistakes… first, they fail to allow autonomy in carrying out the work. …Second, they frequently ask subordinates about their work without providing any real help when problems arise, [coming across as] judges and dictators rather than coaches and colleagues. … Third, [they] are quick to affix personal blame when problems arise… fourth, [they] rarely shared information about their own work.”

  • “You can’t build a relationship during an escalation” - They actually use this in regards to inter-team relations, rather than client/agency ones. (Pg. 178)

“The key to her success was the supportive climate she had built with the team in dealing with mundane setbacks, before the negative organizational events began to pile up.”

Alright, we’ve been productive.

Let’s dunk on it.

  • Teresa and Steven are obsessed with the Titanic. They refer to it, or a similar boat capsizing event, five times throughout the book, which averages to once every 38 pages. I cannot emphasize enough that this is not a book about boats.

  • The authors do promote a few instances of extreme crunch as positive. While they may have used words like productive or exciting when self reporting, what they’re describing could also be read as trauma bonding.

  • Page 12 has an overly prosaic description of a funeral for a corporation. Warning; contact with raw, unabashed melodrama can cause hyperventilation, side stitches, loss of consciousness. Ask your doctor if flowery prose is right for you.

Final impressions:

Overall, I kinda liked this one. The signal to noise ratio was much better than I’ve come to expect from this genre. The authors were transparent about where you could cross-check their supporting research, cited things clearly, and generally wrote in a style which was agreeable to my stomach.

I think I would have liked to see a larger, more representative sample for their primary study, and more of a look into the way they quantified the self-reported results (which seemed to be largely write-in and diary entries, and therefore subject to interpretation). It’d also be neat if they spent a little bit less time name dropping the few companies that agreed to identify themselves and more time on the specifics of what was observed.


(You just read 191 pages! 🎉)

Obligatory disclaimer: the views expressed here are my own, and do not represent WillowTree or its partners. Please don’t @ me.