If you’re in business, you likely have a nightmarish story (or two) of a well-intended initiative that spiraled into a massive, years-long project with no end in sight. Progress slowed to a snail’s pace, morale dipped dangerously low, and employees began dropping off like flies. What happened?
I often tell young executives, “Stop trying to solve world hunger.” We won’t solve world hunger tomorrow, and we certainly won’t do it alone. It’s the same in business—big dreams and long-term goals are crucial to our success, but they can also hold us back when we become too fixated on goals that are years away from coming to fruition. Instead, we need to focus on quick wins that allow us to accumulate momentum, propelling us into the future and sustaining our team throughout the years of hard work.
FLEXIBILITY BREEDS INNOVATION
When we’re too fixated on the future, we may look up after a few months and find that the business landscape has changed entirely and our product is no longer relevant. By focusing on small wins, we stay flexible, enabling our business to adapt to the many changes and disruptions that will inevitably occur.
My company has recently been working on a brand new ordering capability. In the process, one of our clients provided the feedback that they needed our system to provide more visibility into the lifecycle of an order. This request was a direct result of COVID; facing supply chain issues and labor shortages, it has become critically important for our clients to have eyes on each step of the ordering process. We heard this feedback, recognized our old assumptions were no longer valid, and adapted accordingly. It took time and effort to resequence the features we had already created, but the changes ultimately resulted in a better product for our clients that truly responds to the demands of the moment. If we had stayed rigid and attached to our original plan, we wouldn’t have been open to this change, and our clients and business would have suffered.
We never know when business conditions, client requirements, or even our company will change. When we prioritize short-term wins, we allow our business to stay flexible, and such flexibility breeds innovation. Do not become so fixated on your original goal that you lose the opportunity to take advantage of what’s right in front of you as it’s evolving and unfolding—even if it’s not what you originally planned. Ultimately, you may create an even better outcome than you could have imagined.
QUICK WINS IN PRACTICE
When you focus on smaller-scale innovation instead of getting lost in large, high-level ideas, your day-to-day tasks become more manageable and your goals more attainable. You’re better able to focus on the work in front of you because the end is clearly in sight—it’s no longer an un-imaginable and nebulous goal attached to years of effort with little reward.
So what does a small-wins approach to business look like in practice?
In planning out your business goals, begin with a one- to three-year plan and build in check-ins every six months to refresh based on the changing needs of the business. This keeps your plans relevant to business conditions while holding you and your team accountable for your progress. Once your future vision for the next one to three years is determined, you can break your time down into even smaller increments. Prioritize projects you can release within three- to five-month time frames. Of course, not every project may release this quickly, but if you can set your business up to release every quarter (as opposed to waiting up to a year), your momentum and your business will grow.
If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that none of us can predict what is around the bend. By breaking down our time, plans, and goals into smaller increments, we allow ourselves to make plans for the future while staying in touch with reality.
CELEBRATE THE LITTLE THINGS
Small wins keep our business moving forward and encourage our employees’ growth. Small wins boost morale, but only if every success, no matter how big or small, is celebrated. If employees can see the future reward for their work, they’re willing to do the work necessary to make that reward happen.
Celebrating quick wins builds confidence, momentum, and employee loyalty. When employees are hitting their milestones and repeatedly reaping the rewards of their hard work, they will feel accomplished and motivated to continue showing up as their best selves every day. Furthermore, moods are contagious, and a positive, inspiring work environment will spread throughout the office and beyond, creating a space where everyone wants to work.
On the flip side, be careful not to beat yourself up for the ideas and plans that don’t work. The beauty of focusing on short-term wins is that it gives you the freedom to iterate and try new things without long-term pressure. Failure is an inevitable part of the world in which we live—what is essential is that we stay agile, celebrate our achievements, big and small, and then quickly move on to the next goal in front of us.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but quick wins are the key to long-term success. Of course, these quick wins need to align with our broader vision, but each quick win we accumulate adds another stepping stone on the path to our final destination. They fuel the long road ahead, re-igniting our passion and re-affirming (or re-directing) our vision.
The quick wins may not be as flashy or cause any press releases, but they are just as—if not more—important as statement-making successes. The old cliche is a cliche for a reason: the only constant in life is change. We cannot know what our future holds. All we can do is focus on what’s in front of us, identify the next goal we can attain, and celebrate every single win we achieve along the way.
Jeanine L. Charlton serves as Senior Vice President & Chief Technology & Digital Officer at Merchants Fleet.