I recently witnessed something in a large US city (that shall remain nameless) that reinforced some very important principles that are applicable to many aspects of our human experience – including incentive and employee recognition programs.
Here’s what happened. I was standing on a busy street and heard the sound of an approaching truck – a good old-fashioned street sweeper with a water sprayer and multiple spinning brushes. Parked cars had been dutifully removed from the curbside to make way for this street-sweeping truck to do its civic duty. The only problem was that the street was so littered with various forms of trash, including bottles, cans, cartons, newspapers, fast-food wrappers, etc., that the street-sweeper did little more than create a blizzard of debris that settled, once the truck had passed, on the just-“cleaned” street. As I looked further, I noted that trash receptacles strategically placed along the street were overflowing with waste items like those that comprised the blizzard.
What does this have to do with employee recognition and incentive programs? I think that there are two very important takeaways.
1 – Be clear about what you are trying to accomplish (your strategy) – and how your tactics support that strategy.
In the example above, street-cleaning can be seen as just one contributing means to an end – i.e., a clean and healthy cityscape. But, based on my observation, no one had stepped back from that singular activity – street-cleaning – to really assess whether, given all of the factors involved, it was truly contributing to the objective.
We see this many times in the implementation of incentive or employee recognition programs, in that programs are introduced with little regard to how they fit with and contribute to the overall sales or human resources strategies they hope to enable. Just as with the misguided street-sweeping, such lack of integration can doom the specific program to failure.
2 – Know what to do first; create a firm foundation.
It’s pretty clear what’s wrong with the street-sweeping story, isn’t it? Leaving aside any commentary about human nature and littering, I would submit that the street-sweeping activity was rendered ineffective when the city failed to implement a process to systematically empty the strategically-placed trash containers. Redirecting some financial and human resources to that activity would have made the street-sweeping activity significantly more effective.
The corollaries here are equally obvious. For example, all elements of program design – i.e., award rules, data collection and processing procedures, communications – need to be critically evaluated and understood before the program is launched. The foundation must be well laid for the program to work.