Too Many Teams Have Forgotten How to Celebrate.  Here's a Reminder That Recognition is Important.
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.         

Some project teams celebrate the completion of a project, while many others let this milestone pass without any special recognition for the team of the accomplishment.  I've been in both environments, and greatly prefer a company, organization and team culture that acknowledges efforts and accomplishments - these places are just more enjoyable.  A little appreciation expressed by co-workers, a project manager or upper management can be an important positive factor for project teams.  As project manager, it is incumbent upon you to encourage a project culture that incorporates an appropriate amount of recognition for individual and team accomplishments.  


When is the Celebration?  Unfortunately . . .  Never.

This is a sad story about an organization that forgot how to celebrate.  As a consultant I stepped into position as overall Program Director for a team of a few hundred employees with about a dozen projects underway.   During the upcoming months we would complete nearly twenty projects that delivered business functionality, a monumental achievement when compared with accomplishments over the prior year.

Shortly after my arrival, I noticed that there was no acknowledgement, recognition, praise or celebration for the first project completion.   As I was new to the company and still becoming acquainted with the company culture I enquired about this and, with some disappointment, learned that project celebrations didn’t take place any more.  My project managers described changes through the years that eroded any notion of a team celebration upon completion of a project effort.  By the time I arrived, a project’s conclusion would sometimes be noted with a broadcast email from the project manager announcing the achievement; in some instances the Program Director and perhaps the internal business customer would ‘reply-all’ with a terse email of congratulations. 

So where were the team celebrations?  Sadly, these just didn’t happen and over time that had been accepted as a norm for this organization.  The culture of this group had caused them to miss out on countless opportunities to commemorate an accomplishment, strengthen the cohesiveness of the team, improve the work environment and possibly improve our performance.


An Organization in Which Celebrations and Recognition are Ingrained in the Culture

Near the start my career I joined the 1PSS development team in Bell Laboratories.  There I found a project culture that has yet to be equaled in any of my subsequent experiences.  My look back to this time may have a slight rose tint, but is still able to highlight some practices that have a valid place in today’s work environment.

There’s no doubt that we had to work hard much of the time, so it certainly was not a leisurely life on 1PSS.  At times we could be found in the office for over sixty hours per week for months at a time.  We had a lot we could have complained about (and, to some degree, did), but our team of about one hundred people chose instead to accentuate the positive.  Department luncheons at Leonardo’s pizzeria were not infrequent.  We had countless valid reasons to take a break from work and celebrate something exciting - a colleague’s promotion, a friend’s departure to a different opportunity or even celebration of an upcoming wedding.  Thanks to Sandy (one of our project members), we had a birthday cake for every project member on their special day - this seemingly insignificant activity was very much appreciated and added to the personality of our project.

With our long development cycles, sometimes 18 months or two years would elapse between major project completions and cutover of our system into service.  The completion of a major release was a big deal and sufficient reason for a formal dinner party, complete with a live band.  Stories, skits, jokes and special awards would make this a fun evening.  A few people would receive a well-deserved cash bonus.  And every person on the project would receive a memento of the project – this might be a nice wall plaque, a project mug (the first 1PSS mug I received was personalized with my name!) or some other item with our project logo. 

Now what made all of this special is that none of this felt “forced” or “strained.”  These celebrations were ingrained in our culture, and each event felt entirely natural and earnest.  As well, the value and importance of these events stood the test of time, occurring throughout my entire seven years with this team.


My Observations – Employee and Team Recognition

I was extremely fortunate in having this 1PSS experience at the start of my professional career.  From these formative experiences I’ve fashioned these project celebration principles:

  • No matter how busy we are, there is still time to celebrate.
  • Despite hardships on the job and even setbacks in the project, there is always something valid to celebrate.
  • Celebrating a current accomplishment makes it a bit easier when looking forward to the challenges and difficulties of the next project.
  • Acknowledging and recognizing accomplishments are important activities for all of us to do, these are not responsibilities limited only to management.

As well (and perhaps projecting my own bias), I do tend to think project members appreciate having a project memento.  While this will not have any meaning for some members, there are many who will display their memento and retain positive memories of their experience.

As I’ve consulted in several companies I’ve found that most companies and organizations don’t have an effective culture of team recognition, and certainly I've never encountered any team with an approach that approaches the effectiveness of that from my 1PSS days.  Quite to the contrary, I've much more frequently seen institutionalized recognition devoid of any personal touch that attempts, with limited effect, to acknowledge team and individual accomplishments.  Here’s what I’ve seen and concluded:

  • Management, project managers and team members really do want to recognize achievements.  There is an earnest desire by everyone to acknowledge individual and team accomplishments - what is missing is an effective approach for this recognition.  Unfortunately, the result is often a well-intentioned "recognition program" that misses the mark.
  • Individuals rarely utilize corporate recognition systems.  Most companies have a mechanism that allows an individual to ‘award’ a co-worker with a small gift (usually considered de minimis, with a typical value of $25 - $100) at the person’s discretion; presumably this would be to acknowledge an ‘over and above’ effort or accomplishment.  When I look into use of this benefit, I commonly find that very few people have either given or received such an award in the past year.  This gives me pause for thought: do employees feel they have an important role, and do they see any overwhelming value, in peer recognition.
  • There’s minimal positive value in ‘institutionalized” recognition.  Suppose a department meeting is coming up next week - someone will probably be tasked with assembling a list of people for the senior manager to praise during this meeting.  This type of recognition can be meaningful, but only if the person delivering the praise understands the significance of the accomplishment.  Better yet, if the accomplishments are already known by the management team (and are not just assembled for the meeting), then the recognition seems all the more sincere.
  • The ‘Congratulations!’ reply-all is expected from upper management; more can be better.  I tend to think a charade is being acted out at the conclusion of each project: the project manager sends word of the project completion in a broadcast email and an upper manager uses “reply-all” to offer their one-word message of congratulations.  While this is a positive action, there is so much more that an upper manager can do in acknowledging the difficulty of the accomplishment or the importance to the company of the result.  An expanded and personalized (to the team) response that shows more of an understanding can be infinitely more effective in letting the team know that their work and results are appreciated.


Recognition of Accomplishments on Your Projects

How are accomplishments recognized on your projects?  If you are a project manager, you have the lion’s share of responsibility in having a reasonable system of recognition in place.  Don’t fail to recognize the importance of this responsibility and the impact you can have on productivity and morale through your efforts in this area.  You’ll certainly be influenced by the culture of your company and constrained by company policies and budgets.  However difficult these factors may be, look for steps you can take to encourage a ‘recognition culture’ for your project.

If you are a project manager, here are a few pointers to get you started in creating or improving your project's recognition culture:

  • Take praise and recognition seriously:  explicitly include “create or improve your project’s culture of recognizing accomplishments” in your project management job description and performance goals.
  • Without making recognition a ‘checklist’ item that is mechanically visited in each meeting, you do want opportunities for public recognition to be commonplace.  Don’t relegate recognition to soley be an end-of-project activity.  Diminish your reliance upon recognition from upper management as your sole source of praise for the team.
  • Give consideration to the criterion for individual and team recognition.  Is it for ‘everyday work that has been completed’ or for ‘above and beyond’ efforts and results.  Either is fine - choose one and be consistent.
  • Don’t trivialize or weaken the value of recognition.  A one-word “Congratulations” email might be cynically interpreted as saying “Congratulations for whatever it is that you did.”   Ensure that you (as project manager) and upper management give a heartfelt congratulations and not a boilerplate message.
  • Consider these specific suggestions for implementation on your project:
    • In team meetings, periodically set aside time for team members to volunteer their own descriptions of accomplishments by a colleague.  You’ll want to establish ‘peer recognition’ as equally valuable (perhaps even more valuable) than recognition from upper management.
    • When you come across an email noting an accomplishment of someone on the project team, then leverage your position as project manager to amplify the impact of that email.  You could do any of these: read portions of the note at a team meeting, forward the note (along with your personalized comments on the accomplishment) to a broader audience, send a private note or contact the individual with your words of thanks, or publish the note on a project Wiki or bulletin board.
    • Include a celebration for every project completion.  Plan an appropriate budget and size given the significance of the project importance.  It’s unlikely that you’ll have a formal dinner with a live band, but you might have any one of these food-oriented events:  company-sponsored luncheon at a restaurant or at a company cafeteria, light hors d'oeuvres, a celebration cake, or just refreshments.  Or you may not have any food, and instead just focus on a celebration that recaps the accomplishment, gives some people or groups special recognition, and has a few stories told by project members.   
    • Always produce and distribute a project memento.  Good is having a memento.  Better is a memento with a project logo.  Best is one that has a logo and is personalized.  Most will cost some money, but working to get the budget approved for this is worthwhile.  Steer away from certificates printed on your office printer – these are not worth the paper on which they are printed (however, embossed certificates that are professional printed and framed can be a nice gift to project members).  Spend some time on the web looking for options to consider.


What's Next?

You might conclude from reading this article that I'm a proponent of a 'party atmosphere' for your project team, but that's not the case.  Projects in the work environment are about collaboration and joint accomplishments - a small, yet vital element of every project culture should be acknowledging these achievements.  Your leadership role as a project manager carries with it an obligation to foster an environment with an appropriate emphasis on recognition.  Research the topic a bit, talk with project team members on the topic, and then start the process of incorporating some new ideas into your project operation that will enhance your project's recognition culture.