Small Successes Early

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John Thomas
IBM Research Hawthorne

Some problems require large teams of relative strangers to work together cooperatively in order to solve the overall problem. Yet, people generally take time to learn to trust one another as well as to learn another's strengths and weaknesses and preferred styles. Plunging a large group of strangers immediately into a complex task often results in non-productive jockeying for position, failure, blaming, finger-pointing, etc.



Problems are often too complex for all aspects to be addressed simultaneously.

If a problem is understood, it is logically better to deal with the hardest constraints first.

The structure of complex problems often becomes more clear as one tries to solve the problem.

A part of any complex problem solving process requiring more than one person is the interaction and relationship among the people.

People in a new team need to learn about each other's skills, working styles, and trustworthiness.

When people get frustrated because of non-success, they tend to blame each other.

As people work toward a goal, the goal tends to become viewed as more valuable and therefore people are willing to work harder to reach it.

As people experience team success, they tend to view the others in the team more positively.


Teamwork is often hard under the best of circumstances. In highly complex problems, when people come together from different cultures, backgrounds, or agendas, it often becomes so difficult as to seem impossible. Rather than having people simultaneously attempt to solve a complex problem AND at the same time learn to work together as a team, it is often more effective to separate the otherwise tangled problems.

First, have the people solve a tractable problem where it is clear that they have a common agenda. A successful experience working together to solve that simple problem will help people learn each other's styles, strengths, weaknesses and so on. With this knowledge and trust, they can now move on to try to solve more difficult problems.

The human factors psychologist James Welford was called in as a consultant to deal with what appeared to be a very large age effect. People over 35 were having a tremendous difficulty learning new hand weaves. The difficulty, as Welford discovered, was in two tangled problems. On the one hand, it was hard to see the actual threads and second, it was hard to learn the patterns. What Welford did was introduce a short training segment with very large, quite visible cords. Once people had mastered that, they were transferred to the much smaller production size. This eliminated the "age effect" and in fact, both older and younger people learned much more effectively and efficiently.

In similar fashion, we argue that trying to solve a complex problem with virtual strangers, especially when there is reason to believe there may be a difference in agendas, is a "tangled problem." Untangling the getting to know people from the complex task will help insure ultimate success.

Some care should be given to the task and setting. The "small successes early" task should allow some degree of give and take, some opportunity for expressive, not just instrumental communication. People should have the opportunity and space for doing something creative, for sharing stories, for physical interaction.

Additional Reviewers/Editors: Alison Lee, Catalina Danis, David Ing, Ian Simmonds.
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When bringing new teams or organizations together, it is useful to begin with a small success.

In this way, people begin to learn about each other and trust each other. People learn more about the nature of the problem domain. This makes tackling more difficult problems later relatively easier.

Example: At the kick-off to a new software development project, rather than having the people be invited to "attend" an event that is "thrown" for them, encourage them to organize a party, cook-out, pot-luck, song-fest, or storytelling event among themselves. In the process of organizing and carrying out this activity, they will learn about each other's styles, learn about the trustworthiness of others, and be encouraged by having a success.

Alternatively, the team might simply work on an aspect of the problem to be solved, provided it is something fairly clear that will result in "success" quickly. For instance, the team might initially work profitably on a short presentation about the project, a poster, or a scenario but not immediately jump into working on a systems design or a requirements document.

Example: In the military, new recruits learn to work together on relatively simple tasks such as cleaning a barracks before they are expected to perform complex tasks requiring a high degree of trust and interactivity such as fighting battles

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