I recently celebrated a birthday, and I am in the thick of planning the Peak Academy Awards (our team’s big way to celebrate innovations throughout the city over the past year). Planning a birthday celebration, a big city-wide innovation celebration, or really any celebration for that matter takes thought and energy. But what’s the return on investment and why do we celebrate in the first place?

Celebration = Process Improvement

Celebratory balloons surrounding a sign that says "yeah!!"

When we think of innovation, we often think about problems. We talk about problem statements, waste, gaps, and defects. And these are an important part of process improvement. We have to know what’s wrong to be able to fix it. However, the problems, a.k.a. the things that are going wrong, only represent one side of the coin. For example, even the plus/delta tool we use to identify changes that are needed (the deltas) also includes a call-out of everything that is going well (the pluses). We must learn from our successes and remember that we cannot successfully create a culture of innovation without also identifying what has gone right and celebrating it.

Blue, gold, and purple sparklers

Innovation can be energizing, but it can also be exhausting. It asks people to take time out of their day-to-day jobs and put in extra work. Nothing takes the wind out of somebody’s sails more than feeling like they went above and beyond and nobody noticed. People like to been seen for their efforts
and celebration is the tool to make that happen. Celebration can also contribute to a sense of community by reminding people they are working toward a greater mission. But perhaps even more importantly, celebration gives us milestones and it demarcates pause points to turn around and look at what we’ve accomplished. In process improvement work, we talk about “shrinking the change” or breaking your innovation into baby-steps. Celebration is the fuel that keeps up the momentum as you move along each step, the antidote to innovation fatigue. As such, it’s important to celebrate at each of your milestones, including the failures. Innovation cannot happen without failure so when it inevitably does occur, celebrate the lessons learned and the fact that you took a risk and tried.

Celebration Can Be Small in Scope

As I reflect back on the energy it requires to plan and execute celebratory activities, it’s a good reminder that celebration is worth it. Last year was a big milestone birthday for me, and I went all out: a theme, a band, and a lot of guests. This year, I went much smaller and had a few friends over for pizza. Both last year’s celebration and this year’s felt meaningful in that they marked the milestone of another successful year. As you think about your own celebration, remember that it doesn’t have to be a big shebang to be significant. In fact, many people would prefer it not be. More important than the scope of the celebration is the thoughtfulness behind it. It’s easy to bring in donuts and check celebration off your list. But celebration is not simply a box to be checked. It must be personal and meaningful to truly have an impact.

Big "x" over four people holding check marks covering their faces
People aren’t check boxes!

Here are some ideas for how to celebrate someone:

  • Send a hand-written thank you note: personalize it and make it thoughtful
  • Nominate them for an award: for example, employee of the month
  • Elevate them: let leadership and their supervisor know about the awesome work they are doing
  • Have a conversation: make it heart-felt and acknowledge specifics of what you are celebrating
  • Give the gift of time: offer to take care of a task that has been stressing them out or you know they don’t enjoy. Or, if you’re their supervisor, grant them additional time off
Just-finished thank you note with a pen, surrounded by flowers and small gift

So as you’re in the throes of innovating, don’t forget to celebrate: celebrate yourself and your personal milestones. Celebrate your colleagues that have made an impact on your work. And if you are a manager, it is even more important that you always, always take the time to celebrate your staff. Not just once a year, but on an on-going basis where it becomes part of your culture.

P.S. Come celebrate city-wide innovations at the First Annual Peak Academy Awards! Email (PeakAcademy@denvergov.org) to learn more.

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