“So when do we celebrate?”

I know what you’re thinking, “Celebrate? We don’t have time to celebrate. We’re too busy getting things done.”

But this is among the most important questions you can ask. Why? Because we’re a bunch of forgetful, ungrateful whiners.

Getting things done feels good, but head-down obsession with our daily tasks leads to a project-induced stupor in which we can forget the purpose behind our projects. We know we’re making progress. After all, just look at those checked boxes. But to what end? We’re not sure.

Celebrating wakes us from our stupor. When we celebrate, we pause to acknowledge one another and what we’ve accomplished.

If celebrating is so important, why don’t more of us make it a priority? I think I know why.

Three Reasons to Celebrate

Before explaining why we don’t celebrate, let me give you three reasons why we should:

  1. Celebrations remind us of the past.
    When we celebrate, we look at where we’ve been. We remember what we’ve accomplished, what’s gone well, and what we would do differently.
  2. Celebrations ground us in the present.
    When we celebrate, we clarify our progress thus far in a project. We can take stock of the people and resources we have in place as we move forward.
  3. Celebrations pave the way for future success.
    When we celebrate, we generate momentum for future efforts. Whether we’re celebrating mid-project or at the end of a project, we reconnect with our team and with the purpose of the project.

The Real Reason You Don’t Celebrate

I ran into a friend yesterday who’s a designer. The last time we spoke she had just been recruited by a large technology firm to head their digital design efforts. Having spent nearly a year at the company, she’d grown concerned about its culture. She described an environment in which people don’t trust each other. What really drives her nuts is how everyone seems to be content with mediocrity.

My friend became increasingly agitated as she spoke until she finally exclaimed, “We never celebrate!”

She went on to say, “We limp to the end of projects and eventually complete them, but by then we just want them to be over.”  (Sound familiar?)

How could celebrating possibly help this situation?

Fyodor Dostoevsky, in his book Notes from Underground, says that the best definition of a human is “a creature who walks on two legs and is ungrateful.” Though I want this only to be true of my children and not of myself, if there were a Lack of Gratitude award, I’d probably finish in the top three, or maybe even win it outright.

We’re ungrateful because we’re hopelessly forgetful. We’re productive—employing our best project-hacking measures to slice and dice our way through tasks—but we remain in a project-induced stupor. We know what we’re doing, but forget why we’re doing the project in the first place.

What Happens When You Don’t Celebrate

Celebrating connects people. As my friend can attest, failing to celebrate separates people.

I was recently speaking with the CMO of a large health care company who was furious after a meeting about his company’s new mission and values statement.

“We’ve been working on this for months,” he said, “and the lead on the project said that she just wants to get it over with.”

When I asked how they were going to celebrate it, he laughed and said, “Oh, we’ll do the same old same old. Send it around to everyone and wait for the crickets to start chirping.”

This company would have achieved far greater returns on their mission and values project if, from the very beginning, they had made celebrating a priority.

Instead, news of the project will dribble out through email to everyone else in the company.

Chirp. Chirp. Chirp.

A Celebration Case Study

An apparel company asked me last year to help a group of their brand leaders develop their storytelling skills over the course of a year. I worked with an internal team to develop the project and prototype it before implementing it. The project came together beautifully and the prototype surpassed all of our expectations. We knew this project was going to be something special.

Rather than rush to implementation, we paused to celebrate. It wasn’t elaborate. We ordered in lunch, raised a glass to commemorate our accomplishment, and took some time to acknowledge the talent and effort we’d each contributed to make the project such a success.

Then we launched. As we’d hoped, the project went well. The leaders loved it and said they were able to immediately improve their ability to use storytelling in their daily lives.

The project came to an end, and you can guess what we did. We planned a nice dinner out to celebrate. We shared, laughed, and listened as we each reminisced about what we’d done together.

It would have been so much easier not to celebrate, but we planned for it from the very beginning of the project.

How You Should Celebrate

I celebrate every Friday afternoon. Inspired by Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, I spend about forty-five minutes writing down what I’ve accomplished in the past week and I forecast what I’d like to accomplish the following week. Finally, I write down one thing I’m grateful for. I try to be specific, otherwise I’d write down things like my family, my health, and my career every week. For example, I find it helpful to write down something like, “I’m grateful that my daughter and I had lunch on Wednesday.” It’s not that I would have forgotten these things, but apart from this weekly ritual I would have forgotten their importance in my life.

Something inexplicable happens each time I do this. Without fail, I draw in a deep breath the very instant that I remember the things I’m grateful for. I feel at peace with the past, present in the moment, and confident about the future. That’s what celebrations do.

Three Steps You Should Follow

Whether I’m going through my Friday afternoon weekly review or planning a project, celebrations always include the following three steps:

  1. Plan it
    You can decide exactly how you want to celebrate later, but you have to plan for it now. If you wait until the project starts, you’ve waited too long.
  1. Personalize it
    Tailor your celebration to fit your culture and the context of the project. Know your team and what they would appreciate.
  1. Protect it
    Excuses for why you shouldn’t celebrate will mount as you near your planned celebrations. It’s your job to ensure that doesn’t happen.

In the coming weeks, I’ll wrap up the strategic planning process with a health care company. We’re going to spend a two-day retreat completing the company’s plan and prepare to implement it. At the close of the second day, you can probably guess by now what we’ve got planned. Yep, we’re going to celebrate. You should too.



Learn more about celebrating success with your team and customers in the eighth issue of the Business of Story magazine.