Monday, August 28, 2017

Recognition and meaning, by design

I watched with interest this TED presentation by Dan Ariely, titled "What makes us feel good about our work". I immediately noticed the relation to a couple of entries I had written in the past, on the topic of more meaningful relations in the workplace.

Whereas personal initiative remains an essential driving force behind individual progress, knowing that your work matters to someone is scientifically proven to make you feel more motivated. In fact, if you can take 15 minutes to watch Dan's talk, you are bound to be transfixed by this quote:
"...ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort in front of their eyes."
In a world of increasingly complex activities, supply chains and work arrangements, measuring performance becomes equally more challenging, affecting the frequency and the quality of recognition amongst people working together.

Nevertheless, peer recognition and mutual dependency remain fundamental aspects of healthy work relations, which makes me believe that successful organizations must engineer (yes, engineer) policies that broaden the means and reach of recognition in the workplace.

No perks program, please!

As a common example of a well-intentioned recognition tool, organizations often setup a system of peer-to-peer recognition where employees can award each other a number of points for a special contribution and where the recognized peers can later redeem the points for some sort of perk.

Unless these perks have fundamental impact in the career/life/practice for the recognized person - and they rarely do - perks programs are the perfect example of a poorly designed initiative. I could write a few paragraphs worth of negatives, but I will just list the top three that come to mind: a chore that is not integrated into the workflow, it is unrelated to career development, and worst of all, it is infrequent.

Engineered recognition

I particularly liked this toolkit article ("Managing Employee Recognition Programs") as a comprehensive overview of recognition policies and how they can be implemented, and I would add to the list this other article on gamification: "How to Use Gamification to Engage Employees".

Even with all those resources out there, there is still a long way to go, to be paved with concerted effort to elevate peer recognition to a core driver in a culture of appreciation and meaning in the organization.

In concrete terms, such engineered recognition policy should observe the following principles:
  • Clarity on what is recognizable. Is it shorter time-to-market while meeting customer demands? Is it reducing operational costs while maintaining or improving quality? Is it addressing problems off-hours?

    The set of criteria must strike a balance between covering enough good behaviors while not being too overwhelming for those responsible for evaluating against the criteria.

    For teams following an Agile process, a simple and effective mechanism is to use a "quest" tag on stories and let the team collectively vote on the stories that deserve the "quest" tag, typically things that are important for the whole team, but falling through the cracks of collective attention, areas of expertise, and customer demands. Some examples would be the profiling of the whole system periodically for hotspots, or maybe cutting down build time by half.

    The exact technique doesn't matter and organizations can learn a lot about themselves in the process of defining the criteria.

  • Integral part of work stream. Recognition must be a completion criteria for any project and broken down in smaller intervals if the project lasts longer than a few months.

    This point depends on the previous one, that is, the clarity of what is recognizable. Once again, teams following an Agile process can simply tally up the number of stories with the tag "quest" that were completed across the team and put extra emphasis on them during the sprint review meetings.

    As with any part of a work stream, it should go without saying that low overhead is a goal too.

  • Integral part of career advancement. Whereas we still want to take the discretionary powers delegated to a self-organized hierarchy into consideration, the recognition must be partially bound by feedback from peers.

    A holacracy constitution comes to mind. Everyone must be able to contribute, everyone must be subject to the same rights and duties, but not everyone's participation must necessarily carry the same weight (a meritocracy is better than a democracy, sorry folks) . Conversely, recognition must be rooted in peer recognition and defensible against the recognition "constitution".

  • Publicly visible. Barring exceptional circumstances, everyone must have full access to everyone's recognition status.

    The previous example about using sprint review meetings may be supplemented in cases of outstanding effort. Extra points awarded to HR if working data points into company directory, internal online tools, and physical workspace. About the physical workspace, extra coolness points for displaying dynamic content using flat panels in public areas to broaden the impact of recognition.

  • Meaningful. This is probably the most important and challenging part of a recognition program, allowing people, in as much as possible, to find out which parts of the activity they consider important for the larger mission, but also to themselves. This is very hard to achieve in a hierarhical organization and the reason why I am strongly believer of a self-organized free-market for people to find their place within large organizations.

I could explore examples of each of these points, but it is easy for anyone to extrapolate them to the particularities of their own organizations. It is also a fun and transformational exercise for any team out there.

Now imagine how these ideas would fundamentally change team dynamics if more of the work done on a day-to-day basis acquired more meaning, not through contrived directives, but by simply making the intrinsic meaning of the work more visible to the people executing and consuming the work.

Imagine if a significant fraction of individual drive and motivation was not lost over casual lack of recognition for work well done (the virtual shredding of work before our very eyes) . Remembering to say "thank you" still goes a long way and everyone should keep it in mind, but what about designing the work flow so that the "thank you" opportunities are made a regular part of the team relations? 

There is much to be appreciated out there, in life and at work. We know we take a lot of it for granted. Being publicly thankful for all those things costs virtually nothing. It makes us feel better and it makes others feel great.

Now go thank someone. Repeat it everyday.

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