Employee recognition

Walter Chen of iDoneThis: Tracking Success

George Dickson
May 11, 2015
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Have you ever worked really hard, but had nothing to show for it?

That can be an incredibly demoralizing feeling. I recently brought it up to Walter Chen, co-founder of iDoneThis, who described it this way:

"It gives you a sense of continuous stress and pressure. If you don't mark your milestones, progress, or accomplishments, you often feel like you're not going anywhere — like treading water."

Walter was kind enough to stick around to share more of his thoughts and insights about effective team management, and the importance of marking accomplishments in a team environment.

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Focusing on what you've done, and sharing it

iDoneThis is a unique service where each team member is prompted, via email, to summarize their accomplishments at the end of the day. The next morning, each team member receives an email digest highlighting the "dones" accomplished by everyone on the team. It's simple, easy, and powerful.

According to Chen, a recent study by a Harvard Business School professor showed that 95 percent of managers are wrong in thinking that financial incentives or stress motivates people at work. Rather, the number one motivator is the feeling of making progress every day toward a meaningful goal.

"Tracking gives you that sense of progress. When you reflect back on it — that's when you see how far you have come," Chen said. "Our users say that it helps them realize that they actually got more work done than they would have otherwise given themselves credit for. It's that type of reflection that helps them do that."

Collaboration and celebration go hand-in-hand

From a team standpoint, Chen said that it's important for teams to track their progress and celebrate their milestones and the small wins that they make every day. When team members receive their iDoneThis digests, they have the opportunity to "like" one another's "dones" as well as offer words of encouragement, support, or appreciation.

Improving transparency

In addition to recognizing each team member's myriad contributions, iDoneThis shares another common theme with Bonusly: transparency.

"One of the things about me is that I'm super lazy. It's easy for me to say something in front of everyone just because then I don't have to repeat it," he said. "Transparency makes it easier for everyone to get a sense of what everyone else is thinking. It provides for more of a free flow of information rather than a constrictive one where everything is taking place one-on-one. You often find that you're repeating yourself. For me, that's one of the biggest benefits of transparency, one that outweighs the risk."

Chen explained that many anxieties surrounding transparency turn out to be unfounded, that perhaps it wasn't as big of a deal as you might have thought. "You're also putting your trust in your team that they can handle it," he said. "They will understand where you are coming from. Plus, when you know someone is going to see what you've done, then you will try to do better. When you think about transparency and you commit yourself to it, you often find it makes you better."

Listening and understanding

Sharing your accomplishments with one another isn't just about communicating what you've done, it's also about understanding what your team has done. As Chen explained, as a manager, you're likely hands-off as far as doing the actual work is concerned, yet you're responsible for making relevant decisions. However, the individuals who are doing the work are better positioned to make those decisions because they know what is actually happening on the ground.

"That's why it's so important for the manager to be a good listener. Managers need to, without doing the actual work, have that sense of what is happening on the ground," he said.

Tools for distributed team management

Like Bonusly, iDoneThis operates as a distributed team. With members in New York, Wisconsin, Germany, and Italy, iDoneThis uses a variety of tools to ensure asynchronous communications no matter where individuals happen to be located. I asked Chen to share a basic starter toolkit for effective distributive team management, and he shared these recommendations:


Naturally, his own team uses iDoneThis extensively. Chen said that clients such as Buffer, who are famously distributed, also use iDoneThis. "When all of your people are in different time zones, real-time communications can be a huge pain. Not only time zone-wise, but logistically," he said. "For example, video conferencing tends to drop out all the time. It's much easier to update each other asynchronously using a tool like iDoneThis."


Like "nearly everybody else," Chen said that his team uses Slack for nearly all of its other team communications.

Hackpad (now Dropbox Paper)

Chen recommends Hackpad for organizing notes, sharing documents, and general collaboration.

Parting advice

Chen shared one final piece of advice that applies not only to leaders who want to start building more effective teams but to anyone working in a team environment:

"No matter how good you are at your job, or what you perceive to be the technical part of the job, you always have to deal and interact with people at work. Learning how to do that in a way that is productive and positive is one of the more difficult, but more importantly, valuable things that you can do. It's all about people no matter what."

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