A story about cheese

It is very common to reward employees based on objectives every quarter or semester. In a previous job where I was a Scrum Master, I faced the challenge to keep my team motivated. Creating a goal for each sprint seemed like a good idea. I also wanted to reward the team if they reached their objectives, to increase their motivation… It was a mistake.

Here comes the cheese

As the Scrum Master, my role was to do everything to help the team build the product and respect the Scrum workflow. I also wanted to bring a bit of fun, so I started naming our sprints after a cheese name. A sprint lasts 2 or 3 weeks and is a success if the team finishes all the items they planned to do.

“Tomme de Savoie”. My favorite cheese ever! ❤️

But I didn’t stop there. If we finish our sprint with success, I would bring the cheese to the retrospective as a reward. And we would eat it together during the meeting (with a baguette of course!). I had already seen this kind of thing in another company, but with beers (note: this story happens in Belgium).

The carrot and the stick

The team welcomed this funny goal! And for a while, it worked… Until the first Sprint failure.

For the first time, I had to tell the team they would not eat the cheese… Heartbreaking.

It made me think a lot. I realized, “punishing” the team because they didn’t finish all their tasks in time was not right. It didn’t bring any value. I know they did their best during the Sprint, problems happen all the time, sometimes it was out of their will. Why should I punish them for that?

So I asked myself: “Is it really fair to give them a carrot only if they succeed, no matter what work they’ve put into?”. No. Plus recent studies have shown this approach is not working. So I decided to bring the cheese anyway.

At the retrospective, I hid the cheese in the meeting room and I started the meeting as usual. At one point I said “It’s true we failed to achieve our objectives, but it doesn’t mean we failed as a team. We still worked a lot. So I really think the team deserves the cheese!”. And I put it on the table.

I immediately saw a big smile on their face. Why? Because they love cheese of course! But also because I rewarded their efforts. The end result doesn’t matter.

Not afraid

Think about it, you have two ways to motivate your team: do you want them to be afraid to fail? Will they feel better with that approach? Or do you want to create a climate of trust, by rewarding them even if they didn’t succeed? Which option in your opinion will bring the best to your team?

If you’re not allowing them to fail, they will be more stressed to finish things on time. They will do a less and less good job, and they will be less and less motivated.

This episode taught me the carrot and the stick is not a good approach to motivate someone. In sport, there’s the saying: “the important thing is to take part”. I remember in some tournaments, everyone was receiving a price, even the person or team who had lost. This always intrigued me, but now I understand why. If you fail at something, whereas you put a lot of effort into it, and you’re not rewarded, you’ll lose your motivation.

And that’s not what we want, right?

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