PM Articles > Alan S. Koch > Employee Recognition in an Agile Team

Employee Recognition in an Agile Team

Fred sent me this question:

I've read that recognition (in whatever form is most valued to the individual) is an important motivator. In the context of Agile team dynamics, I'm guessing that individual recognition could be counterproductive to everyone working well together, but recognition would be a better motivator if it were directed toward the entire team rather than just to a few individuals on the team that stood out. What do you think?

The Agile methods are designed to make the work environment itself a motivator for the team members. But well-placed recognition can be a powerful addition—if it is done in an Agile way!

Recognition Often Backfires

It seems that there are negative side effects in almost every employee recognition system.

When we focus on individual recognition, some very important behaviors are de-incentivized. To receive recognition, I must excel above my teammates. Even when teamwork is one of the criteria being used, I will look for ways to be more of a team player than the others on the team. The bottom line is competition, and despite our best efforts, that competition can turn ugly.

Many organizations attempt to short circuit competition by focusing recognition on the team. That way, it is reasoned, the team members will have to cooperate and collaborate if they are to achieve the success that will garner recognition. My experience has been that recognition systems that only reward teams and never individuals tend to backfire over time. Sooner or later people become unhappy that the underachievers get just as much limelight as the overachievers.

Of course some organizations attempt to avoid these ills by not recognizing anyone. You are paid for your work, and if you do well, you'll get a raise and maybe a promotion (sometime in the murky future). While this is OK for some people, psychology has taught us that it leaves many wondering if their efforts are really valued.

Recognize What You Value

In crafting any recognition system, we must always start with a clear picture of the behaviors that we value and wish to promote. With that clearly in mind, we can begin to look for ways to promote those behaviors without causing other less desirable ones.

What we value on Agile projects can be boiled down to this:

  • Satisfy the customer's changing needs
  • through continuous communication and collaboration
  • in a self-managing cross-discipline team.

The Agile team is responsible for achieving success, so recognizing the team makes a lot of sense. But the team is comprised of individuals who need to know that they are appreciated. My recommendation is to strike a balance by recognizing both the team and the individuals—when they merit recognition. This requires an objective, multi-point approach.

Individual Recognition Based on 360-Degree Reviews

Agile team members should do 360-degree reviews of each other, not annually, but regularly—at least at the end of each project (more often on projects over three months). The results of these reviews should be aggregated over the long term to build a consistent picture of each person's contribution to their project teams. (This aggregation will also dampen the temptation of people to engage in tit-for-tat. "You give me a good review and I'll give you a good one," or, "You gave me a bad review last time, so I'll make you look bad this time.")

This long-term view can provide important insight for the annual performance appraisal. In addition, it can be the basis for individual recognition. (This person's teammates have repeatedly singled him or her out as a significant contributor to the success of their teams.)

This form of individual recognition should be rare. It should be reserved for truly extraordinary contributions on multiple teams over an extended period of time. I would not recognize an individual in this way if anyone's eyes would roll at the announcement. It should be met with sustained and enthusiastic support from the people this person has worked with.

Team Recognition By Their Customer

At the end of every Agile project, the project's customer should publicize the project results (good or bad), identify the team that produced them, and include whatever superlatives he or she thinks appropriate. After all, if "Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer ...," what other recognition matters?

My only warning here is to be sure that the customer does not feel pressured to say nice things. If things went badly, that should be acknowledged (although without disparaging the team). Of course, if the Agile team is functioning as intended, a bad result should be rare.

This will keep the focus on the main thing we value—producing value for our customers. And it will lavish the attention on the human element that produces value—the team.

That being said, I would add this caveat: There will be rare circumstances when one team member goes above and beyond the call of duty to make the team successful. I don't mean the hard work that we often see from good team members when things get tough, but truly extraordinary actions. If all of the team members point to one person who deserves special recognition, then in addition to what the Customer said, the Coach should add the team's thanks to that individual.

Agile Recognition

This kind of recognition mix will keep the focus on what is important: the team, teamwork, and the value they provide to their customer. At the same time, it will not diminish the fact that teams are comprised of individuals who must cooperate to achieve success, and who sometimes go above and beyond.

Related Links
Kimberly Wiefling suggests over 20 creative rewards for team members, none involving a corporate logo. Our Team Rewards and Recognition Guideline encourages you to plan and budget for team recognition while you're planning the project itself—without getting corny.

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