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This is not staff recognition

Contests create losers, don’t motivate staff

Sometimes, a good idea doesn’t work as well as it could because of how and when it is implemented. I fear this may be the fate of the challenge issued to front-line health-care workers by the CEO of Alberta Health Services.

According to a front-page story in the October 26, 2009 issue of the Edmonton Journal, Stephen Duckett wants staff to find ways to save the system money. I agree with the president of the Alberta Medical Association that the request makes sense.

“Front-line workers are the experts in the delivery of health-care services, so it really doesn’t matter if it’s a unit clerk or a therapist, a nurse or a physician—we all play a role as part of the team in delivering care,” the Journal quoted Dr. Chip Doig as saying. “I think what Dr. Duckett is recognizing is that there are probably things that we see (where money could be saved), and he would like to take advantage of that expertise.”

This is the strength of Duckett’s plan. Whether in health care, education or another industry, front-line workers are the experts. If asked in a correct manner, almost everyone could suggest ways to save money. Most of the suggestions would involve only minor savings, but add them all up and the total saving could be significant.

Once identified in one department as a way to save, the idea could be transferred to other departments, increasing the savings even further.

What is not so good is Duckett’s timing and how he plans to reward some of those who suggest ways to save money.

In the weeks leading up to this challenge, Duckett has announced several cost-cutting measures. The Journal quoted him commenting on his blog that, “In some circumstances, the budget planning has involved tough decisions about the need to reduce staffing levels, preferably through the vacancy management process and voluntary retirement.”

Against this background, one would expect many workers are likely to be more focused on their own future employment that on where their employer could reduce spending.

The Journal reported that Duckett plans to reward those who submit ideas to save money. “[The] most promising suggestions will be eligible to win prizes paid for by the CEO himself.” These include two weekend getaway packages, two $500 gift certificates and five team packages for a sports event, dinner theatre or team luncheon.

This may be the biggest strategic error of them all. The goal seems to be to get a few ideas that will save lots of money. A better goal might be to look for many ideas from many health-care workers, each of which may save only a few dollars but when combined with the savings suggested by others would add up to a big cost reduction.

By announcing that only the “most promising suggestions” will be eligible for the prizes, he will discourage many from coming forward with ideas that they feel would produce insignificant savings—measured in hundreds or thousands of dollars—even though collectively these could yield savings equalling hundred of thousands, if not millions of dollars, in savings.

While the prizes are all worth winning, in the end they may be the source of a new problem. The contest may generate hundreds of good ideas from among Alberta’s 85,000 health-care workers, but there are only nine prizes to be won. At the end of the day, that means there will be nine winners and a whole bunch of losers.

Creating losers is likely not a great way to motivate staff that is working in an environment of uncertainty when morale is already low. Far better to forget the prizes and finds ways to acknowledge every suggestion in some small way. A simple, sincere thank you can be more valuable to the recipient than a cash award that is soon spent and nearly as quickly forgotten. And it’s better than creating another among many losers.

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