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Consider how many BHAGs you have achieved over your career. "Big hairy audacious goal" is the memorable (if faintly bizarre) phrase coined by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras 15 years ago for a visionary strategic objective that can inspire a whole team.

It is in the nature of such shaggy milestones that companies will reach them only rarely. BHAGs have a 10-to-30-year lead-time, according to the authors. When executives who clock up as few as seven years at the same company are increasingly described as "veterans," the chance many staff will be present from vision through to realization must be low.

No wonder that, in their effort to motivate individual team-members, companies still fall back on more workaday tools: monetary incentives, such as pay-rises and bonuses, to encourage good work; deadlines to keep that work on schedule; perks to make the journey agreeable, or merely bearable.

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These sources of "extrinsic" motivation are an unavoidable part of most corporate cultures. But they can also destroy workers' fragile love of the job – the intrinsic motivation that underpins creativity and success – or drive staff in the wrong strategic or, worse, ethical direction.

If companies hit big goals infrequently, and the incentives for reaching them have toxic side effects, it would be better for them to find other ways to encourage worker engagement. Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School and her husband Steven Kramer, a developmental psychologist, believe an obvious, but often overlooked, approach is for managers to remove barriers to day-to-day progress at work.

Their insight is supported by research based on 12,000 daily diary entries by workers at seven companies, which became an article and now a book, The Progress Principle. These intimate accounts of what teams were thinking showed that even quite small steps forward at work generated a burst of joy (yes, it sounds hokey – but they maintain it's the correct word for what they discovered) that inspired creative work over a period of days.

The diaries show, in one case, that a team-member demoralized by rounds of redundancies among her workmates was quickly re-energized by the success of an urgent project, even though she had to cancel her holiday to carry it out. It didn't take much for senior managers to sustain this virtuous cycle – an on-site appearance, a bottle of branded mineral water for the hard-working staff and some words of encouragement.

Appealing though the idea is, it sparked my skepticism. Last week, Bob Dudley, BP's chief executive officer, sent an e-mail to staff urging them to look away from negative headlines and focus on the fact that the oil company was "making real, solid and measurable progress to build the new foundation for a strong and successful future." Aren't bosses guilty of whistling in the dark if they extol progress when the company has suffered some profound strategic setbacks? And what use will small steps be when the broader corporate sector is facing such fierce economic and competitive headwinds?

Prof. Amabile told me it was essential for managers not to over-emphasize achievements, let alone fabricate them. Employees would see straight through such a ploy. "You can't do this if there's no progress: That would look fake," she said. In that regard, the extent to which the Dudley memo galvanizes staff will depend just how "real, solid and measurable" its advances are. Even then, if the strategic direction of a company is wrong, no amount of day-to-day progress will rescue it from its fate. Similarly, if staff don't find their work meaningful, they won't value even quite large achievements and won't experience the positive consequences.

"Small wins" lack the hirsute macho appeal of the Collins-Porras goals. But the theory feels right. As the workplace chronicles attest, the positive impact of incremental advances endures. What is more, most of the catalysts for employees' intrinsic motivation – basic resources (not gimmicky perks), autonomy, adequate time for the project in hand – are free, or at least are cheaper than traditional monetary incentives, which can come with damaging unintended consequences.

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As for the challenging economic backdrop, I met Prof. Amabile last week in Harvard on the day that Barack Obama was due to sell his $450-billion job-creation plan to Congress. Most of the embattled U.S. leader's inauguration day BHAGs look further off than ever. A few daily advances in the American workplace won't bring them much closer. But the cumulative effect of instilling a progress principle could, over time, be large.

Meanwhile, if there's one person in the U.S. who needs some small wins – and the consequent boost in morale and creative thinking they would provide – it's the President himself.

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