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They Switched To A Cash Prize and Totally Blew It

December 17, 2013

I wonder why they quit giving Ship It awards to other teams.

What do you mean?

You know, we seemed to be the only team that was still getting Ship It awards all the way up until they announced the department was being reassigned.

Jessica, management hasn’t given out a Ship It award in over a year.

But, we got. . .you mean YOU?

Shh. Don’t tell Jacob. The awards mean a lot to him and I’d like him to leave thinking management was rewarding him.

Jessica and I were course developers for Enterprise and Support Training (EST), an internal Microsoft training group. We wrote training materials for Microsoft support engineers. Our team consisted of four Instructional Designers focused on writing Microsoft Exchange courses. Technically we were peers. But, I’d been with the group the longest and unofficially was sort of the lead.

Several years earlier, before Jessica joined our team, our department decided to offer recognition awards. They were patterned after Microsoft product Ship It Awards.

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Microsoft Product Ship It Awards were awarded for creating software

To qualify for a product Ship It award, the requirements were pretty strict. You pretty much had to be on the development team. But we, or rather the EST managers decided we could create our own Ship It awards for writing courseware.

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EST Ship It Awards were awarded for writing courseware

I thought it was a great idea.

The department set up a long list of criteria that a course had to meet to qualify for a Ship It award.

I thought that was a terrible idea.

I understood what they were trying to do.

“What we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly.” Thomas Paine

But, by loading up the requirements too high, the award became more of a demotivator. If only a few courses qualified, the award becomes a sign of division rather than a source of pride and unity. However, I had little control over the requirements. I just made sure that all of the courses that our little Exchange team created met the criteria.

And things went along pretty well for about a year. An award is strange. Even people who claim that they were only motivated by money display their Ship It awards in their offices. And then one day, management screwed up a good thing.

We had an all-hands meeting once per quarter. They were somewhat of a pain since my office was all the way across town from where the rest of EST had offices. But, it was important to see and be seen in a company like Microsoft. And they typically handed out the awards at the all-hands meetings. None of the Exchange guys were getting an award and I was the only member of my team to make the drive. It turned out that this was a fortuitous decision on my part.

At the meeting they announced that they were changing the recognition program. It seemed like everyone already had a Ship It award so they were discontinuing that program. Instead, the managers would vote on one member of the department who would be given a $50 award.

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The managers seemed to think this was a great idea.

So, who’s idea was it to offer cash rather than Ship It Awards?

Me and the other managers. Why?

You really don’t want to know.

There were two big problems with the new program.

First, was that we were all working for Microsoft. Most of us were worth quite a bit of money, on paper anyway. Fifty bucks while appreciated would be quickly forgotten. It was a nice dinner and that was it. A marble plague has a little more permanence. But, what was even worse was what it said about the person who won it. I mentioned that my team worked across town from the rest of the department. We were all good at our jobs, but our jobs involved working directly with the programmers and testers in the Microsoft Exchange team. We didn’t interact with the EST managers very often at all. The odds that the managers over the programming courses, or the manager over the database courses, or really any manager except my own would ever know what a great job my team did was pretty small. The people who won the award would be the ones who made a point to hang out around the managers. In fact, it might even be people who ditched some of their course development work to spend time working on high visibility department projects. The award was going to become a recognition of the department employee best able to schmooze with the managers.

As I drove back across town, I tried to think of how I was going to explain this to the rest of my team. It wasn’t really my role, but naturally, they’d ask me how the meeting went. What was I going to tell them about the new program?

Ultimately, I decided to tell them nothing. Maybe management would see the problem and correct it before my team members found out. Maybe.

Several weeks went by and Jacob and I finished up an Exchange new-to-product course. I went down to the trophy shop and had them create two brass “award” plates that were exactly the size that our old ones had been. I then put one in an interoffice mail envelope and stuck it in Jacob’s mailslot.

Hey, Rodney?

Yeah?

Did you get the Ship It award for the NTP course we did?

Yup. Sure did.

Can you believe this? They are just sending them to us in interoffice mail now. They aren’t even having us stand up in front of the department and shake our hands.

Yeah. . .ah. . .can you believe it?

Funny thing. Jacob hated to stand up in front of the department. It was part of the reason he avoided the all-hands meetings if he could. And yet, he valued the award. It was around this time that we hired Jessica from IBM. She was a cc:Mail expert. As she completed her first course, I took my Ship It plague down to the trophy shop and said, “I need you to make me one that looks like this.” It was a couple hundred bucks, but it was absolutely worth it.

Over the ensuing months I kept supplying my team with Ship It awards and they continued to display them in their offices. In some ways it was a relief to do it this way. I no longer had to track the various requirements to make sure our courses qualified for the award.

Finally, the department was told that our funding model had changed and we were each released to go find jobs in other teams. Maybe I should have kept silent and let Jessica think the Ship It awards were still a department policy. Maybe I wanted someone else to tell me that they also thought it was important to recognize people for doing their job well. Maybe I just wanted a chance for someone to say “thank you.” I knew Jessica would understand the reasoning and appreciate it. I also know that Jacob would be devastated if he realized that the department had quit recognizing his individual efforts.

When you are building a rewards program, make sure you structure it in a way that will reward the Jacob’s and the Jessica’s in your team and not just the person who is the best at self promotion.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss)
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

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