How My Little Pony Gave Me A Top Performing Team


Get Shift Done: Management

In 2010 I accepted a new position as a Senior Manager. On my first day I found out more about the teams I’d be leading — one team was considered a high quality team, performing at its peak. I’d have a manager overseeing that group, and little to worry about.

Then there was the other team.

My new boss had been managing them directly, and his description of them was less than complimentary. In fact, he made them sound like a bunch of misfits, barely a team, hardly able to get anything done. They sounded like the Bad News Bears of technical teams.

I would, I was told, have my work cut out for me.

Reality Sets In

In a 2010 study, researchers found that unmotivated and dissatisfied workers cost corporations $300 billion a year in lost productivity. When you stop caring about your job, you stop showing up. You stop working hard. You stop giving it your best.

This was a talented team who really wanted to do well. But they had had little in the way of positive leadership. They were beaten down. They didn’t want to try any more.

This team was well on their way to becoming a statistic of poor management.

A Little Praise, A Lot of Gain

I started by following the empathic manager playbook — first up was weekly one on ones, letting the team know I cared about their goals and their challenges. I made myself available, all of the time, even if it meant ignoring other priorities. I watched them to see what worked to motivate them. And most of all, I thanked them for their work, and praised them for their ideas.

They started to bloom.

One day, one of the developers did something wonderful and in my quirky way I simply said, “That’s awesome — you deserve a pony!”

Ponies, Ponies Everywhere

It grew, quickly. Other team members would ask me if their ideas deserved a pony, too. The more I said it, the more they wanted to hear it. I was getting teased, asking how I was going to deliver on my pony offers. I had no idea.

But, while walking through Target, picking up a gift for my young daughter, I saw the display of My Little Pony figures. I knew this was how I’d solve my pony delivery problem.

I dropped 5 or 6 newly purchased, plastic smelling, pastel colored My Little Pony figures in my desk drawer, and the next time someone went above and beyond… they literally got a pony.

The ponies disappeared from my desk drawer quickly. To keep up with demand and my team’s brilliant work, I started scouring second hand stores for more My Little Ponies.

During this time, the technical debt the team had been carrying for 18 months was gone. Our business partners, once antagonistic because they thought they would never see their projects done, became true partners that looked forward to working with us. We had a collaborative process, one that was turning out innovative work, on time and on budget.

And we also had a software development and support team with My Little Ponies scatter across their desks. They would brag about how many figures they had, who had more, when they would get their next one.

Not only had the team come back from the brink, but they were developing a team personality that was fun, respectful and competitive.

It was time to kick it up a notch.

The Most Valuable Pony

Checking out the local Goodwill store for more figures, I found the mother of all My Little Ponies. It was 18″ tall and pink. It needed some TLC, but I was 100% committed. This would become our Most Valuable Pony Award — the MVP.

The rules for the MVP were simple: team members could nominate a teammate for the award, but not themselves. The whole team would vote on who was most deserving that month. And whomever won could keep the MVP on their desk until the next vote.

A huge, pink, My Little Pony figure with MVP written in black Sharpie across the side. And each person was thrilled to display it for the month, where anyone that walked past could see it.

This was the last step to bringing the team together. We’d gone from encouraging their ideas, to rewarding them, to getting them to acknowledge the work of their peers and be proud of each other.

They had gone from being a bunch of individuals working on the same project to a team that supported each other and brought great, innovative ideas and dedication to their work.

Great team culture is magic.

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