Project Management Dialogues with ATTITUDE!

by Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S.

This Month's Featured Noggin' Floggin':
Attitude of Gratitude: Celebrate Project Success . . . and some Failures, too!

"The important thing to remember is that if you don't have that inspired enthusiasm that is contagious, whatever you do have is also contagious."
- Danny Cox.

Summer is practically upon us in the northern hemisphere, so my mind has naturally been wandering to picnics, parties and celebrations of every kind. I don't need a very big reason to throw a party. It's genetic. Finding six matching wine glasses in my kitchen cabinet is reason enough.

Projects are also fertile territory for all manner of festivities. For example, if you live long enough you'll eventually complete a project successfully. When the customer is delighted beyond words, when the I's have been dotted, the T's crossed, and the seemingly endless task list is dwindling to mere trifles, it's time to celebrate. What's the best way for you and your team to mark such an accomplishment? How should the tireless souls who made it possible be recognized and appreciated? I have a few ideas.

Congratulations! On to the Next Impossible Project.

Don't ruin the fleeting bliss of a successful project completion by "celebrating" it all wrong. Before I start with the Do's of celebration, let me clearly spell out the Don'ts.

While there are many ways to celebrate project success, the one I am least fond of is assigning the team to the next demanding project. The reward for doing a great job shouldn't be to get stuck with the next gnarly task. After the death march, at least hold a wake. Take some time, spend a few bucks, have a little shindig. The next project can wait another 24 hours!

My second least favorite way of commemorating the completion of some back-breaking project from hell, is to receive yet another T-shirt with the project name and some geeky logo on it. I've accumulated dozens of them over the years. OK, I realize that there are those of you out there whose entire wardrobe consists of such garments, but personally I've never found much use for them aside from washing my car. How about a nice strappy sundress or a halter top for everyone on the team? Perhaps an upscale collection of the latest shades of eye make-up? I'm sure you get my point.

While we're on the subject, please be assured that I don't need another little metal flashlight, fancy pen, key chain, pocket knife, or any kind of coffee mug with the company logo on it�with apologies to those of you whose entire kitchens are outfitted with such mugs. Garage sales are teeming with these lovingly selected tchotchkes. And I never did need cuff links, a man's watch, or a block of Lucite (no matter what's floating in it). How many landfills it will take to dispose of all of this? Enough is enough. It's time to be a little more creative in expressing our gratitude. At least make sure that the trinkets that you're giving out are edible, drinkable, recyclable, or at the very least biodegradable.

Show Me the Money?

Let's mull over the purpose of recognition, appreciation, and celebration in a project. I personally think it's to thank and appreciate the team for their work, to reinforce their initiative and results, and to inspire them to continue delivering similar results in the future. Ultimately it's about motivation, so we had better learn something about what motivates people. Contrary to popular belief, and fortunately for those of us on tight budgets, it's not cash.

Bob Nelson, author of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, reports that cash is fourth or fifth on the list of motivating rewards. But quite a few people are still under the impression that it's all about money. "Thank me in my paycheck!" is their mercenary cry. Unfortunately, it's been proven time and again that stashing a little extra cash in someone's paycheck isn't very effective. Money is too much like a regular salary for doing the job to be seen as a sign of sincere gratitude. It's like oxygen, never greatly appreciated until it's gone. Cash is by nature a solitary reward that's more wisely enjoyed in secrecy, lest someone who received less�or none at all�feel jilted. And monetary rewards are quickly forgotten, especially when rolled into a person's regular paycheck.

If you must use cash as a reward, perhaps due to a seasonal scarcity of T-shirts or coffee mugs in your local area, there are a few guidelines to follow in order to be more effective. First, make sure to award it separately from the regular paycheck so it doesn't look like some kind of accounting error or a change in tax status. Then find the highest-ranking person around who knows something about the project and ask them to hand over the money while muttering a few specific words of appreciation about the contribution that inspired this reward.

Finally, make sure that the amount is inconsequential compared with the person's monthly paycheck�enough for them to say "Wow, thanks!" but not so much that it causes a heart attack. There are two reasons for this.

  • First, it's important that the cash is clearly a token of your appreciation, not some kind of substitute for fair compensation. People who have been slaving away for months, whose health has suffered, whose spouse is about to divorce them for never being home, whose kids barely recognize them, will not be amused to think that you have put a price on their misery.
  • Second, when other people find out about the amount of the reward, they won't be as irritated that you didn't give them any, or quite as much. It's a mathematical impossibility, but in my experience nearly everyone thinks they are above average. You're bound to overlook someone, and even the undeserving frequently assume that they have something coming to them.

Better Than Cold, Hard Cash

If you want to recognize individuals, gift certificates for a nice restaurant or a day at the spa make a greater impact than money. They usually come in a fancy envelope, can be savored by the recipient for weeks or months before cashing them in, and ultimately result in a memorable couple of hours of enjoyment. But team rewards are by far the easiest and least complicated option.

While it might be appropriate to take a few particularly deserving individuals aside to express heartfelt appreciation for their special efforts, creating celebrations that focus on the team will be perceived as a lot more fair and cause significantly fewer headaches. Even giving away T-shirts, which I have already disparaged, is not without pitfalls. On one project I had 12 people on the core team, and about 40 on the extended team, but when it came time to give out T-shirts there were at least 120 people who expected one.

There won't be any hurt feelings when the core team, extended team, and dozens of "voyeurs" are invited on a dinner cruise, or spend an afternoon golfing, or throw all caution to the wind and go bowling together. People can bring their significant others (if they're still speaking), hang out, have some fun and repair slightly tattered relationships. The frustrations that people may have felt with each other during the project can melt into minor irritations under the influence of a little beer and the flicker of the fluorescent lights of the bowling alley. During the celebration, it may dawn on folks that no amount of cruising, golfing, or bowling could possibly make up for the humongous amount of work they just completed, but they'll usually appreciate your thoughtfulness in arranging the event nonetheless. You might want to arrange for a team photo, a certificate with an inspirational saying on it, or a personal note from the CEO, to be presented to each person attending. Just make sure that you have someone PhotoShop in those people who were out of town when you took the picture. (Easy to do in today's digital age.)

Better Yet�Peer-to-Peer Appreciation

The humdingers of reward and appreciation methods are those where team members reward each other. These peer-to-peer recognition systems enable individuals to express their gratitude to each other when they catch someone in act of doing something that supports the goals of the team. This reduces perceived favoritism by managers and increases personal responsibility for assuring that an attitude of gratitude prevails among team members. Here's how to make it easy.

  • Print out a stack of certificates that say something like "Thanks! You made a difference to me!" Leave a bunch where people can pick one up and fill in the particulars of the person's name and what they did that was praiseworthy, then award it with a flourish. People really appreciate the sincere thanks of a colleague for a job well done and don't part willingly with this evidence that they are truly valued. I've seen wrinkled and yellowing versions of these adorning cubicles years after they were received.
  • Get a pile of Starbuck's gift certificates and have an admin person keep them handy. Let people know that anyone can pick one up and award it to anyone else for any reason just by signing them out with the admin. All they need to do is verbally thank the person and hand over the booty. A monthly review of the tracking sheet is plenty to discourage gaming the system, and it's amazingly easy to administer. At $5 or $10 a pop the total budget for this usually ends up being less than the cost of post-notes in the supply cabinet.
  • Combine both of the above for even more impact.

Celebrating in the Global Village

Don't forget team members on the other side of the ocean when celebrating. It's easy to overlook remote team members, but they are an increasingly important part of project success. With a little imagination, a transcontinental expression of gratitude can be arranged. Send some handwritten notes of thanks. Ship some sweets from your local area to the remote team members. YouTube a video of a "team song" acknowledging their work with creative words set to a classic Rolling Stones tune. Dress the part for added impact.

Or arrange a little party for them. In every country of the world there are people who enjoy planning a party. Find that person, give them a budget, and set them loose planning something that the local folks will enjoy and appreciate. Post pictures of your parties on the company intranet and include the pictures as the lead-in to the post-project-review where a few smiling faces will be a welcome counterpoint to some of the dreary memories that will be dredged up by the retrospective.

Never Reward Firefighters!

Firefighters carry matches. Adrenaline junkies in search of their next fix, these people will actually cause problems just to have the thrill of fixing them and being rewarded for it. Not consciously, mind you. But we've all seen these pyromaniacs in action. Don't encourage them! Reward is a double-edged sword: what gets rewarded is what gets done. If the number of calls answered per hour is the metric used to reward customer support folks, guess what happens? They give customers the bums rush off the phone or even hang up on them. Reward the number of bugs fixed? How about focusing on preventing bugs! Don't reward anything that you don't want more of.

There was an engineer who was renowned for designing something that didn't work quite right and then submitting a quality improvement suggestion on how to fix his own designs. Amazingly, the quality manager rewarded him for this! How embarrassing is that? And demotivating to others. Firefighting, diving catches, and heroics are symptoms of a problem, not signs of a cure. Don't spread this disease by rewarding the carriers. Find the person who is planning ahead, preventing disaster, executing with excellence, and recovering from setbacks without setting their hair on fire, without glitz or fanfare. Whip out a Starbuck's gift certificate for this everyday hero and send them home at 3 PM to enjoy some time with their kids.

Celebrate Early and Often

Not unlike the person who eats dessert first, I believe in celebrating the success of a project early in its lifecycle. If celebration, recognition, and appreciation are truly going to be motivating it just won't do to save it all up until the end. Research has shown that people need about ten times more experiences of positive feedback for every one piece of negative feedback for the amounts to feel equal. It's far more effective to sprinkle a little appreciation fairy dust along the way.

Practice an attitude of gratitude by noticing what's going well and offering some encouraging words to those responsible to keep the psychological scales balanced. A handwritten note every week or two expressing sincere thanks for some helpful deed won't break the recognition and appreciation bank. And a monthly Team Decompression Session at a local park or cheesy pub would be well worth the money, even if it has to come out of your own pocket.

Innovative Appreciation Techniques

The most highly appreciated reward that I've ever seen used to thank a team was on-site chair massages for almost a hundred strung out people during an extremely harrowing project phase. Everyone was deeply touched by this gesture, including big tough guys whom we worried might not appreciate it. Even the stodgiest of the team enjoyed their experience and were absolutely blown away that a company would do something so extraordinary for their people.

Another energizing celebration is a facilitated drum circle with a bunch of big drums and a space where people can make a whole lot of noise without the police showing up. Hire a professional to cart in the drums and lead people in making sufficient racket to wake the dead. It's a great stress-reliever too, and even if people don't like the drumming they'll still enjoy watching everyone else make total fools of themselves. Bring some earplugs for the noise-averse. There are always a few.

Try something a little whimsical to keep spirits up in otherwise tiresome projects. Sometimes amusement is its own reward. On one project called "Columbo" we held a "Being Columbo" costume contest. While we expected to have quite a few people sporting trench coats in honor of the TV show detective popular at that time, we were amazed when one creative engineer showed up dressed as a giant loaf of "Columbo" bread, inspired by a local bakery of that name. Another team created a "comedy corridor" where people were required to sport clown noses, tell jokes and otherwise engage in uproarious behavior.

Of course, playing laser tag is a heart-pounding thrill. Laser tag is the great equalizer. People of wildly diverse cultures seem to enjoy running around in the dark shooting each other with lasers. No matter how serene and sedate a team member appears to be, once under the cloak of darkness of a laser tag arena it's open season on anything that moves.

When all else fails, have everyone get together to eat pizza. Pizza is comfort food. Everyone feels better after a slice or two.

Making a Real Difference is the Best Reward

On one of my many travels to Japan I was fortunate enough to work with an R&D team in a company that makes bathroom fixtures. Being a high-tech kinda gal I mused about how people could get enthusiastic about making fancy toilets. As I walked into their main lobby I encountered a 4-foot wide glass ball containing a toilet, one of their featured products. Nearby there was a giant papier mache toilet lit from within, built for a festival. A little farther down the hall was the ultimate display: a toilet that opened automatically via a motion sensor when someone walked by. The sign out front even spelled out the company name in little ceramic toilets. Wow! It was pretty clear that these people were passionate about their products. At first I thought this was mildly amusing, but as I worked with them I realized that they are not making toilets, they are revolutionizing the concept of the bathroom experience for their customers. They have a bold new vision of what a bathroom could be, and how it can make a positive difference in the lives of their customers and to society. Who knew?!

As project leaders, this is exactly the kind of passion, enthusiasm, and commitment that we need to inspire in the people in our teams. If people can be sincerely committed to transforming the world through toilets, I'm sure you can find a way to evoke the passionate commitment of your team to whatever project you lead. Try asking a provocative question of your team, like, "Who cares whether we do this project or not?" or, "Why bother to do it?" If you can't find reasons beyond, "Because we're getting paid to do it," then you're missing one of the greatest sources of motivation: the perception that what people are doing really matters.

Most individuals and teams in the professional world are deeply committed to doing a good job because they have pride in their work. Too much focus on external rewards can reduce the intrinsic motivation of individuals. Pay your kid $5 to mow the lawn once and they'll never do it for free again. Don't turn your people into reward and recognition junkies by supplying them with too many tangible rewards or by being insincere with your praise. Remember, the most powerful motivational tools at a project manager's disposal are still a sincere word of appreciation for a job well done, a handwritten thank you note, keeping people informed about what's happening in the project, and expressing some genuine concern for them as human beings. [Ref: 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, Bob Nelson.]

Celebrate Failure, too!

With innovation being so important to today's projects, I wonder why we don't see more people celebrating failures. Innovation is a risky process guaranteed to fail from time to time, so why only reward success? Failure is frequently the foundation upon which future successes are built. Truly innovative teams learn to "fail forward," lurching fitfully in the direction of their goals. If we only celebrate successes we may inadvertently discourage experimenting and taking appropriate risks. No amount of exhortation about the importance of risk-taking will communicate a stronger message than one clear celebration of a dismal failure from which critical information was learned. Don't celebrate the same stupid mistakes made over and over again, those lessons not learned that get repeated on every project. Celebrate new and more exciting mistakes that lay the groundwork for the next breakthrough!

As long as people's basic compensation needs are being fairly met, skillfully applying a healthy and sincere attitude of gratitude will deliver more results than another raise, promotion or bonus. Don't fall for the big lie that people want to be thanked in their paycheck. Ultimately people want to be sincerely appreciated for their work, which they hope will make some positive difference in this world. Not only do our team members enjoy working on our projects more, but we ourselves are transformed when we turn more of our attention to what deserves our appreciation.

Find out more about Bob Nelson's books and his "Rewarding Employees" newsletter at

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