Commitments – Rewards and Penalties

One of the problems that teams can easily fall into is that after a while the team stops feeling the pain of missing commitments.  The commitments becomes aspirational goals that somehow don’t seem to get reached … “well we tried, but so-and-so was sick, and then I had to help with that emergency with the Sales demo site, and …. “.  I was at a retrospective a few months ago with one of our teams.  They had missed three stories.  Guess what they did about it – yes you would be right…the topic never came up!  I sneaked a peak at the Card Wall – yup – definitely three stories missed.  “Did the team make all its commitments this iteration?”  “No” cam the reply.  “Oh, OK – why not?  Since when did it become OK to miss your commitments”  “Well, we tried, but….”  silence.  I was right and they knew it – since when DID it become OK to miss commitments.  Evidently quite some time ago.  Where had I been all this while, I wondered?

The next day I crashed the stand up.  Naughty of me, I know, but they got the “Commitments are the only thing the organization asks of you.” speech.  You know, the one that starts ” You get to self-organize, and have all of this great freedom, but in return you are asked to meet your obligations.  And of course its not as if those obligations are being imposed upon you – you yourselves make the commitments….”There is more that speech, but as I stood there, I realized that this was probably my fault.  I thought back to the T.E.A.M. workshops.  This was about the ‘A’, wasn’t it – accountability.  How were the team holding themselves accountable?  Clearly they weren’t, and indeed how could they – as the PMO I hadn’t given them an adequate enough framework for them to do s…hmmm….at least I had a direction now for the rest of the telling-off.  “It seems we aren’t holding ourselves accountable?  How can we rectify this?  Can you think of of some penalty to impose upon yourselves for missing those commitments last iteration?  May be revoke one of the privileges that you’ve been enjoying – something harmless, but meaningful nonetheless.”  The senior lead asked “Like what?  Help us understand what kind of thing are you thinking?”.  A perfectly reasonable question – it seemed at least they were still listening.  “I’m not sure, you need to come up with something.  but I was thinking along the lines of perhaps revoking the team’s privileges to eat at their desks or an iteration, or perhaps tidying up the team room.  It looks a bit of a mess to me.  I’m NOT talking about breaking agile by agreeing to work overtime or anything like that – but I’d like this to come from the team, so  go way and let me know tomorrow what it will be”.

That evening, the team emissary came to my office.  During the afternoon I had noticed a huddle going on in the team room.  A 30 minute meeting to discuss how to placate the PMO’s rant had evidently turned into a 2 hour soul-searching discussion into how the team had lost its way.  “No food in the Team Room, and we’ll tidy up the room.”  OK- well not exactly original, but evidently even getting to his consensus had taken herculean effort.  This was the true cost of a NICE team I was beginning to realize.

The introduction of some small rewards and penalties, injected into the process every now and again can go a way towards alleviating some of this ennui.  A month or so after that fateful day, at another retrospective I asked the team to come up with a list of how they were going to reward themselves for meeting this iteration’s commitments.  Could they draw up a list?

  • This wasn’t about extracting goodies from the company – we weren’t talking about rewarding them for doing what they said they’d do, and what they were getting paid to do.
  • Working Agreements should not be affected.  For example one of the Teams Working Agreements was no food in the Team Room.  Relaxing that would not be an appropriate ‘reward’ (as it would be a ‘punishment’ for team members that didn’t like other people’s smelly lunches!)
  • Should reinforce the team, and not punitively single out individuals

Here is what they came up with:


  1. Team goes out for drinks after the Retrospective (members pay for their own)
  2. Team goes out to lunch together
  3. Team goes to the movies together (there is a movie house opposite the
  4. Company-wide email announcing that they had reached their commitments

And then I asked them to think of another list – what the penalties should be if they were to miss a commitment in the future.


  1. Everyone wears the ‘Pink T-Shirt of Shame’ for a day.
  2. Company-wide email announcing that they had missed their commitments
  3. The team takes responsibility for emptying and loading the breakroom dishwasher for the iteration

We’re implementing all of them, and the first reward the team is taking is lunch out.

In cases where a choice is involved (where to go for lunch, what movie to see, etc) you can either do that with rotating though the team members, through dot voting, or by electing a “Most Valued Player” (MVP) of the iteration.  All three methods have their pros and cons, and so you should mix it up.  Perhaps change the selection method every Release cycle or other regular cadence.  Eventually the team will get bored of this game altogether – by that time they would have trained themselves to consistently meet their commitments….until they forget again of course!

Paul Osborn

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