Motivating Your Team with Short-Term Wins

To achieve short-term wins, you need to set the right short-term goals. But not all goals are created equal.

October 17, 2022
Alyssa Birnbaum

Have you ever set ambitious work goals or change initiatives and failed to achieve them? You’re not alone - research shows that over 70% of change initiatives are unsuccessful.

Often, initial momentum eggs us on. But over time, obstacles get in the way, excuses lend themselves to a convenient way out, and eventually, we revert to our old practices. We grumble about how we’ll try again next time, when things are a bit easier and the road is less rocky.

When you’re managing a team, this problem is further exacerbated. It’s hard to keep everyone on track to reach goals that can sometimes take years to achieve.

To keep your team motivated, it’s important to integrate short-term wins along the way.

What are short-term wins?

Chances are, you’ve heard of “short-term wins”. John Kotter famously popularized the concept in his 8-step approach to successfully leading change initiatives. He suggests that short-term wins are the small accomplishments you should aim to achieve to make progress towards your bigger initiatives, and that they need to fit 3 criteria:

  • They must be unambiguous
  • They must be clearly related to the change effort
  • They must be tangible and visible throughout the organization

There’s another way to think about short-term wins: as an opportunity to “shrink the change”.

In their book, Switch, which Adam Grant calls “The best book I’ve ever read on change,” authors and brothers Chip and Dan Heath share psychology-backed ways to make lasting changes. One of their key suggestions is to make people feel as though they’re closer to the finish line by setting smaller milestones along the way. That way, when those small, visible goals are achieved and celebrated, overall success feels possible.

Heath and Heath suggest a different set of criteria for these small goals:

  • They should be meaningful
  • They should be within immediate reach

What are the benefits of short-term wins?

Short-term wins serve as a source of motivation towards a larger goal.

  • They ignite a sense of progress towards larger goals and reduce procrastination.
  • They fuel people’s emotions, stirring up a sense of accomplishment and an appetite to achieve even more while reducing fear and resistance.
  • They broadcast the win to others, inspiring those who are resistant or hesitant to partake as well.
  • They enable people to latch onto a story of success, which is helpful when obstacles appear or progress feels stagnant.
  • They give reinforcing feedback to those who initiated the goal, validating their strategy.

How do you set the right short-term goals?

To achieve short-term wins, you need to set the right short-term goals. But not all goals are created equal. Here is a snapshot of 6 things to consider when setting your short-term goals: specificity, impact, alignment, timing, resources, and contingencies.

1. Specificity: Are your goals specific, so it’s clear when they’ve been achieved?

When creating these goals, try to get as concrete and granular as possible. This will help to align your team and clarify exactly what needs to be done, who needs to be involved, and when it is supposed to be accomplished. It also makes it easier to know when the goal has been achieved.

For instance, rather than setting a goal to respond faster to customer service complaints, set a target response time (such as answering to complaints within 24 hours) for a certain percent of customers (perhaps up to 95% of customers) and a due date (by 1 month from now). That allows you to train and support your team members and encourage them to hit the metrics you’ve set, and makes it clear when that goal has been accomplished.

2. Impact: Will they have a substantial impact on the right people?

When setting out to achieve long-term goals or change initiatives, there are often certain stakeholders who will be impacted, or resistors who are hesitant about making any kind of change. These could include the employees on your team, your supervisor, your company executives or board members, or even the public.

When you’re creating short-term goals, consider who needs to feel motivated or rallied to buy-in to your goal. Try to set goals that, when accomplished, will target those who need it.

3. Alignment: Are your goals concretely aligned to the longer-term goal?

This may seem obvious, but you don’t want to set short-term goals for the sake of quick wins if they are unrelated to your main goal. Yes, that will offer a sense of accomplishment, but you want to make sure to keep people on track and chipping away at the larger goal. If your goal is to lower overhead costs by a certain amount, all of your short-term goals should directly or indirectly reduce overhead costs.

4. Timing: How long will it take to achieve your goals?

If short-term wins motivate people to stay on track, you need to ensure that the cadence of these wins are frequent enough to keep people motivated without being too frequent, as that can dilute their impact. If you initially consider short-term goals that take too long to achieve, consider additional sub-goals that can be achieved sooner, perhaps every 1-3 months. Think of ways to disperse goals throughout the process of achieving your larger goal.

5. Resources: What resources are needed to achieve your goals?

Who needs to be involved, how much time needs to be dedicated, and what additional resources are needed to achieve these short-term goals?  Are your resources stretched thin, making it difficult to achieve these much-needed wins?

It’s important to manage your resources to ensure everyone has the support, training, and material necessary to achieve their goals – and that they also have the bandwidth.

6. Contingencies: What’s your backup plan?

The risk of creating very specific goals is that something else can get in the way and derail your initial plans. The best way to tackle this is to consider contingencies before they happen – what will you do if something gets in the way? Preemptively thinking through some backup plans can prepare you to sidestep the derailment and still achieve your short-term wins.

For example, what happens if your employee, who is core to achieving your goal, needs to take time off work for a family emergency or sickness? What happens if new obstacles or projects threaten to shift your timeline? Try to plan for these scenarios in advance and create backup plans to keep things on-track.

How do you celebrate short-term wins?

To ignite your team members, you need to ensure that these short-term wins are acknowledged and celebrated. With each accomplishment, make sure to announce your win - especially to your immediate team members and key stakeholders.

When drafting your message or preparing to celebrate your win, there are a few things to consider to make your team members feel valued and respected while also motivating others in your company:

  • Take pride in your team’s accomplishments, and show that you are deeply appreciative of everyone’s input.
  • Explicitly call out each of your team members for their hard work and individual efforts.
  • Share stories of your team’s determination, and how you all persevered in the face of challenges.
  • State the impact of your team’s accomplishments and how it plays a role in supporting your longer-term goals or initiatives.
  • Rally team members towards the next short-term goal.

Here’s an example of a potential message to share with your team:

“Congratulations team — we hit our goal of acquiring 100 new clients by the start of the quarter!

This was a big ask in a short period of time, but your efforts made this possible  - with Kelly and Mark making cold calls and Cindy and Bob working on the digital marketing campaign. We knew that summer would be a particularly challenging time to get new clients, but everyone stepped up and thought of creative strategies to reach clients - and it worked!

We’re not only working towards our team’s personal goal of getting 500 clients by the end of the year, but we’re making a difference by changing the way that our clients work, and helping them ultimately focus their energy on more important tasks.

Thanks for your continued effort and teamwork! This month we’ll face new challenges, and I’m excited to see what ideas we’ll come up with to reach our next goal!”


Short-term wins can transform the momentum of your team, motivating them towards larger goals or change initiatives and inspiring external members of your company to share your vision. This post defines short-term wins and highlights their benefits, offering 6 specific considerations to aid in crafting short-term goals, and providing suggestions for celebrating short-term wins.

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