Feedback and Rewards

Leadership Tips — Add This to Your Reward System

Tom O\’Dea asked:

For as long as I’ve worked in Information Technology (and some of you reading this weren’t even born when I started), it’s been a fact: nobody on the IT team gets more recognition than the guy (or girl) who is the best problem solver.  When something goes wrong, really wrong, this is the person who comes to the rescue.  They are worth their weight in gold, with their in depth knowledge and exceptional problem resolution skills.


Because everyone knows who the firefighter is, and knows at least two or three good stories of how they saved the day, the firefighter’s boss has very little difficulty during annual salary and bonus reviews making the case to reward them.   The obvious flaw here is that in order to get the biggest rewards, you must have big problems to solve.  Where is the incentive to prevent the fires in the first place?


Sometimes The Question Is Asked


If Susan is so good at fixing problems, why doesn’t she stop them from occurring in the first place?  But the argument is short lived.  Nobody is going to fail to reward Susan if she’s the best firefighter around.  We don’t want to take a chance we might lose her.


Maybe Susan prevents as many problems as she fixes.  On the other hand, maybe she has actually allowed a problem to occur when she could have prevented it, just for the recognition.  To be fair, most people would never go that far.  But could it happen?  Absolutely!


IT Leaders and HR Professionals have wrestled with this challenge for years.  Often the firefighter is outgoing and relishes the attention, while the people producing the high quality, defect free products are low key and under appreciated.  How do we modify the rewards system to recognize quality deliverables at least as well as we recognize those who fix problems?


It’s simple to suggest that the boss pay more attention to the contributions of each individual and be more discriminating in doling out awards.  But the reality in most corporate pay systems is that you are making the case for your share of the pot, and you’re going to have a much easier time fighting for money for the ones everyone recognizes as the heroes.  Turning a low profile, high quality performer into a hero isn’t always easy.


Here’s An Alternative. 


Create a meaningful award focused strictly on problem prevention.  If you’re following CMM or a similar quality model you’ll have a handle on defects uncovered and resolved before production.  And you should be tracking individual performance so you know who delivers high quality products – requirements specifications, test cases, software code, etc.


Disconnect the award from the annual review process.  Try making it quarterly if you can.


Fund it well.  This may be your biggest challenge, because you have to get it into the budget.  What you want to do is fund the award at about 25-35% of a strong annual bonus.  That way you can make the point that if one person were to consistently win the award, they would at the end of a year have just as much money as the firefighter, maybe even more.


Make it a big deal.  Even if you can fund it, and especially if you can’t, the public acknowledgement and recognition are just as important as the money.  Give the award a name, and never let it become routine.


Let the award be something that people submit nominations for, and let people nominate themselves.  Have a review team of competent people who go over the nominations and recommend a winner.  Retain the final decision so that you are always challenging the review team to apply the right principles to their recommendations.


Your firefighters will always get their glory.  Put some effort into finding and rewarding those who never let the fires start.


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