Celebration as a productivity tool

Concerns of Project Managers


Inge P. Casey, PMP Inge Casey Consulting, Phoenix, Arizona

When a large defense contractor won the award of a major project worth about 3.4 billion dollars, the combination of official and private celebration by the project team lasted three days.

When Motorola won the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award in 1988, it was a very big event, calling for celebration throughout the company. How was this done? How do you get the attention of 100,000 employees? Start with an attention-getting announcement over the intercom system by the General Manager of each plant. Announcements over the intercom at Motorola are rare and one by the General Manager even rarer. With posters, banners, speeches and general publicity, an atmosphere was created that made everyone feel important and happy.


Examples like this can be found in all industries and on many levels. Why do corporations spend thousands of dollars on something so frivolous? In business, celebrations for employees are a special kind of reward. The special nature of the celebration comes from the fact that it is only loosely linked to achievement and performance. It is a community experience. As we understand more about human nature and our relationship to work, current management theory re-discovers the value of the human individual.

The mechanical deterministic management model of the past is outdated. It no longer fits today's information-driven service economy. To be competitive in today's international business conditions, organizations need more than the physical labor of their workers. The challenge of today is to innovate mental work and not so much to replicate physical work.1

Editor's Note: It has been said that there are two reasons for living: first to celebrate the good happenings in life, and second, to learn and grow from the not-so-good things. Inge P. Casey applies a twist to this idea in company settings when she proposes to celebrate not only the successes but the failures, since these two help find the way for success. As light bulb inventor Thomas Edison said when questioned why he continued after so many failures, “Why, I haven't failed; I have discovered 9,999 ways how not to make the light bulb.”

Paul C. Dinsmore, PMP Feature Editor

Celebration is the most publicly visible form of recognition. Tom Peters points out that celebration as a form of recognition is one important opportunity to reinforce the specific kind of behavior one hopes others will emulate.2

Today the intellectual and creative contributions of workers has become crucial. The motivation for this deep involvement and commitment is rarely money alone. Celebrating is a way to address the higher needs of our personality.

Abraham Maslow contends that humans have a hierarchy of needs. Starting with the most basic needs of survival, namely food, water, clothing, shelter, sleep and sexual satisfaction, individuals get motivated by progressively higher desires as their more basic exigencies are satisfied.

Celebrations in the workplace can very effectively address the social and self-esteem needs of workers, but they cannot meet the most basic demands of human survival. With this in mind, it is not hard to understand why celebrations are not a substitute for decent wages and a minimum level of safety and predictability. The value of appropriate celebrations is in their contribution to the social and self-esteem fabric of the workforce.


Successful celebrations:

  • Must have a focal point
  • Must commemorate something people can relate to
  • Must be shared; the more public the better
  • Should have ceremonies

Celebrate Successes

Celebrating success seems to be commonplace today. Home Depot stores have a big display honoring the Employee of the Month. Some companies have reserved parking spaces for the Sales Rep of the Quarter. Recognition meetings for the top performers is standard practice in sales professions. Mary Kay's pink Cadillac is probably the most visible and best known sign of these public rewards.

Unfortunately, many of these recognitions can do more harm than good. Rewards must fit the behavior desired. If teamwork is the focal point, as in many corporations today, then the recognition should be given to the team. This is why celebrations are so much more effective than individual rewards. Individual recognition can breed resentment and corporate citizenship of a second class or worse.

Not all the examples of successful reward systems and celebrations come from the private sector.

The City of Scottsdale, Arizona, has two key values. The first is respect for the individual; the second is “Be a Team Player.” The City has a unique system under which they budget salary adjustments first and all other city needs second. The money budgeted for salary adjustments is then used for individual and team recognition. The distribution of this money is carefully monitored.
Each December there is an awards ceremony honoring the team and the individual employee who best exemplified these core values during that year. This occurs at a formal ceremony. The Mayor and City Manager “personally award Kachinas to the winner. [Kachinas are colorful, artistically-carved figures representing spirits of the Hopi religion.] The City Council is in attendance and all City employees who do not have essential commitments participate.3

Celebrate Failures

Albert Einstein once said, “The only sure way to make no mistakes is to have no ideas.”

When we talk of celebrating failures we are actually talking about celebrating the commitment to the company and its mission. It is an encouragement for calculated risk-taking. In an environment where our future depends more than ever on our ability to innovate in small and large ways, this is an essential message.

Finding a suitable way to observe and properly recognize a failure is not easy. Just as we celebrate the death of a loved one with a funeral so we need to develop a culture to commemorate our failures. Done with sensitivity and in the right spirit, this helps with the natural grieving process.

At first glance there seems to be a paradox between the effort to do quality work and the call for rewarding failures. The difference is of course in the distinction between conception and execution. Workers who just lost a major proposal or astronauts who failed to accomplish a mission need confirmation of their value to the organization.

The only sure way to make no mistakes is to have no ideas.

Albert Einstein

The Cultural Framework

Any celebration must fit the collective knowledge and experience.

This is clearly not acceptable in all organizations. Celebrations must reflect the particular culture and traditions of the corporation.

Another example comes from Motorola.

Celebration is Part of the Reward Structure

Traditionally, people have measured the value of working at a specific job or for a specific company in financial terms. The actual compensation is of course the most visible aspect of an organization's way to value its workers, followed by the so-called fringe benefits like health insurance.

During the 1980s, intangibles took on a more important role in determining how desirable a company is. Child care services or country club memberships were carefully evaluated. And while enterprising economists and writers put all this in tables to evaluate and compare, to my knowledge no one has done any research on the impact that celebrating has on the well feeling of the employees. Nevertheless, it is undisputed that the appropriate culture of celebrating has a noticeable impact on the satisfaction and the output of the employees.



Speeches, plaques and certificates are the most common ways to focus the collective mind on the purpose of the celebration. Balloons and banners can be used effectively to announce the purpose of the celebration.


To make the celebration a group experience serves a twofold purpose. A joy shared is a joy multiplied. At the same time the celebration experience forms and strengthens social bonds among all participants.


Since ancient times people have used food to express feelings of sharing and bonding. This is so important to celebration that the word festival or feast is often used synonymously with sumptuous food.

Celebrating with food in a business environment can range from a simple pizza to an elaborate meal.


Drinking goes with food and celebrating. As a matter of fact there is the long tradition of celebrating just by drinking in formal and ceremonial ways.


The decorations for business celebrations generally should reflect the occasion, the achievement which justifies the coming together. Banners and posters are especially useful. Any signs which point to the underlying reason for the event should be given preference over neutral decorations. If you want to use balloons, consider balloons with an appropriate message.

The Ritual

A ritual is often seen as an empty shell, something “useless.” It has been around since the first days of Homo Sapiens and is a universal phenomenon. Nevertheless it is impossible to fully explain what ritual is. The great historian Jan Huiziner tells us that it is a sublime game.8 A ritual stands outside “ordinary” life. More appropriately, it should be considered as an essential, customarily repeated act. It should be fun and involve the whole community.

To remember makes life human. To forget makes it inhuman.

Eberhard Bethge

A certain amount of repetition is essential for people to learn how to act and to appreciate specific celebrations, to become part of the ritual. Such actions paired with a little surprise factor are most effective. At many awards events in business the format is known and the fact that someone will be recognized is known, too, but the honoree's identity is often a closely-held secret. Sometimes the how of the recognition is also unknown to the participants beforehand.

Anybody who has ever traveled and tried to bring a most enjoyable celebration home from the foreign place has experienced a deep disappointment when the invited guests just did not know how to enjoy the occasion. For example, the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans cannot be successfully replicated elsewhere. And the celebration of Octoberfest in the United States is quite different from that in Germany.

If there is one company that stands out for its culture of fun and celebrating, it is probably Southwest Airlines. Smaller celebrations are a regular part of the business culture. Usually these celebrations are paired with food and praise. Major achievements such as winning the triple crown for best luggage service, best customer service and best on-time performance, as in 1992, 1993, and 1994, call for a bigger celebration. They are always conducted in a fun-filled and enjoyable way. The ceremonial aspect is overshadowed by the lighthearted fun spirit of everyone involved. The celebration culture at Southwest Airlines successfully spills over to include customers whenever possible. Seasonal celebrations such as summer, vacation time or Christmas time become special because of the attitude and behavior of the employees.7


Celebrations can and should be a part of any organization's culture. It takes time and creativity to get the most benefit from celebrating. A celebration goes beyond rewards. It focuses on the essential emotional community aspect of work cultures. The time to start is now. Start with small, spontaneous information recognition. Then go for the big splash.


1. Duck, Jeanie Daniel. 1993. Managing Change: The Art of Balancing. Harvard Business Review (Nov./Dec.).

2. Peters, Tom. 1991 Thriving in Chaos. Harper Perennial (copyright 1987 Excel / A California Limited Partnership.

3. Interview with John Little, 1992 Administrator for Organizational Effectiveness, City of Scottsdale, Arizona.

4. Zemke, Ron. 1990. Faith and Commitment. In Service Wisdom: Creating and Maintaining the Customer Service Edge. Ron Zemke and Chip R. Bell (eds.). Minneapolis: Lakewood Books.

5. Zemke, Ron, ibid.

6. Discussed in: Thomas Day. 1992. Why Catholics Can't Sing. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

7. Interviews with employees from different functions of Southwest Airlines, including pilots, reservation personnel and maintenance crews during 1992 and 1993. ❑

A joy shared is a joy multiplied.


Inge P. Casey was born in Vienna, Austria, and received most of her formal education there. She holds a Ph.D. degree from the University of Vienna. She came to the United States on a Fulbight Fellowship to study at Rice University in Houston.

Dr. Casey worked for nearly two decades for the IBM Corporation. Her work in the marketing division included assignments in marketing and in staff positions.

She is the founder and president of Inge Casey Consulting. Her company specializes in managing the changes in our businesses which are facilitated and driven by new technology, including strategic planning, process reengineenng and change management. She is a certified Project Management Professional and is the vice president of administration for the Arizona PMI Chapter. She is also president of the Arizona Chapter of Automated Mapping/Facilities Management International, a professional organization for computerized mapping.

PMNETwork • September 1994