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Don’t be shy in celebrating success

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Congratulations to all the wonderful APM award winners featured in Project journal, and to everyone who was nominated too. We should do more to celebrate our successes.

I’m no motivational speaker, so I can’t tell you that doing this will make you happier. But as a project manager, I found that, when we did celebrate a team’s success, everyone felt good. It gave a boost to our confidence, which translated into better performance and improved results, and so more success. It’s a virtuous cycle.

As an advocate for positive psychology and its application to projects, I recognise this virtuous cycle as a variant of Barbara Frederickson’s broaden-and-build theory. She suggests that positive emotions lead to more expansive and creative thinking. This, in turn, creates personal growth and allows us to flourish. With that comes greater mental and emotional resilience, which strengthens our positive emotions.

If celebrating success is a good thing, how can we create more opportunities to do so? I remember a criticism I received many years ago for a project plan. “Too many milestones,” the grizzly project manager told me. “It’s unwieldy and amateurish. Milestones are big moments in my projects.” I never agreed with him. I always liked to have more milestones, not fewer. Not only do they give you more points of control and leading indicators of progress, milestones are a chance to celebrate, unlike deadlines, which motivate through fear of failure.

A decade ago, I was delighted to learn that my point of view had been vindicated when Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer published an article in the Harvard Business Review called ‘What Really Motivates Workers’. They followed this with another article, ‘The Power of Small Wins’, and a book, The Progress Principle. The message from their research is simple to understand, easy to adopt in project work and powerful in its impact.

What makes people feel good at the end of a working day? The main thing is the feeling of having achieved something.

If you finish your day feeling that you’ve been busy, but have achieved nothing, you go home miserable. Yet when you have that feeling that you’ve really achieved something, it feels great. What if all you’ve done is another day’s work on a five-day task? It is valuable to your organisation, but won’t feel that wonderful – it is progress, but not an achievement. But what if that same five-day task had a dozen or so checkpoints – small milestones that indicate completion of a specific part of the task? Now, at the end of the day, you’ve probably hit two or three milestones. That gives you a sense of achievement, because milestones are intrinsically motivating.

The other thing I love about celebrating successful projects is the capacity to link to lessons learned. Wise professionals emerge from smart young ones who are able to reflect on their experience, but what can the success of a large mechanical engineering project teach a project manager who focuses on business change projects? And what is there to learn for a civil engineering project manager from an agile software project? Too often, we work hard to draw specific lessons that lead to definite recommendations within our own narrow area of focus, but we need to work on extracting more general principles that can guide wider thinking and decision-making.

We are at our most creative when we think broadly across multiple contexts and disciplines. That’s what we can learn from projects that are very different to our own, so don’t just skip over the awards in fields you’ll never work in. Read about what the winners did and let the ideas incubate. There will be something there to learn. Awards are not just a chance to pat each other on the back. I believe they are – or can be – part of the way our profession evolves. And that is truly something to celebrate.

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This article first appeared in Winter 2019 of Project journal, a free publication for APM Members. Download the digital issue now (🔒).

Image: Sapunkele/


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  1. Craig Scott
    Craig Scott 13 January 2020, 07:14 AM

    Mike, I couldn't agree more with you, after a recent success I almost felt negative towards embracing the achievement due to others perceptions. However, I decided to go ahead and publicise this and have only received positive comments since. Great article!