There’s a lot I can say about my first startup. It was a wild ride, a lesson in setting boundaries, and was overall filled with amazing, dedicated people. And even though it didn’t end on the best terms, I will always deeply cherish a lot of the memories I’ve made with that ragtag team. Not the least of these is the friendly competition we kicked off in the office, turning our company into Hogwarts, complete with the 4 houses.
It started off as a private joke when my roommate at the time and I started assigning houses to our team members. She was clearly a Hufflepuff, and we decided I was a Ravenclaw. The founders were largely in Gryffindor or Slytherin, which we decided was not a “bad house,” but an ambitious group. The hypothetical assignments eventually expanded to the whole team, and I decided to open it up to an opt-in group.
Well, it turned out that my roommate and I weren’t the only ones who saw the fun in this, and eventually it spread to a company-wide competition, spanning several quarters! Members from every department got in on the fun, and we were able to learn more about and support each division of the business along the way – all while celebrating the team wins to which we otherwise would never have been privy. It brought the team closer and gave us a sometimes much-needed infusion of humor and fun during our 10+ hour day grinds.
Regardless of your work schedule, if friendly competition sounds like a positive addition to your company culture, I encourage you to give it a go! Perhaps Hogwarts isn’t your thing. It could be Game of Thrones houses, sports teams, music legends… or just have each team pick their own mascots! What matters more is that you’re mixing the teams up, sharing wins, and getting a bit competitive.
Whatever the team mascots or preferences, here’s a step-by-step guide to kicking off your very own House Cup!
Step One: The Buy-In
First, before any real effort goes in, I suggest talking with team members and getting their feedback and support. These sorts of competitions aren’t for everybody, but those who enjoy the idea will be your strongest supporters in this venture. Get their input on the types of teams/mascots they’d want to compete under, and what kind of prize they’d like to see.
When I did this, it was intentionally open-ended and casual. I hadn’t expected everyone to show interest, and not everyone did, but the overwhelming majority did! Better yet, they suggested prizes that were realistic: free car washes for the winning team, an ice cream party, Amazon gift cards – nothing too out of reach.
I then went to the higher-ups to pitch the idea, letting them know that there wouldn’t be any additional effort required from them (aside from announcing winners at the All-Hands meeting), and asking for a budget for the prize.
If we hadn’t gotten it approved, it would have been a competitors’ pool, where everyone pitched in $5-10 and the winning team would get a prize worth 4 times their buy-in. Luckily, I got a budget of $20 per winning team member and could run forward.
Step Two: The Sorting Hat
You can’t have the House Cup without sorting people into their house! Luckily there are about a million resources online for this. I basically cheated and copied a sorting hat quiz, but for the participants who weren’t big Harry Potter fans, I stripped the Hogwarts-specific language. I chose to use Google Forms for easy data manipulation, but if you prefer Survey Monkey or another service, go for it!
Once I got the idea approved by our executive team, I sent out a quick email introducing the idea to the team (and letting them know there would be prizes for the winning House!) and asking anyone who wanted to participate to complete the 4-5 minute form.
When everyone had gone through the “Sorting Hat,” I realized that there was a fundamental flaw in the plan: it’s impossible for there to magically be an even split of participants that are sorted into each house. We found ourselves with over 40% Gryffindors, and only 15% Slytherins (again, not a bad house, just ambitious).
It wouldn’t be fair to have the teams so unevenly distributed. Luckily, in my version of the Sorting Hat, I’ve asked everyone to self-select. If they really wanted to be a Slytherin but their scores pulled more Gryffindor, so be it! Let them wear green.
We still had an uneven distribution, but not for long. I averaged the number of responses in each house for each participant, and if they had a close tie to another house that was in need, they were shuffled on over. It’s really what the OG Sorting Hat would do, if you think about it.
I also made sure that we had at least one representative from each larger department in each House. The whole point of this was to foster team bonding across teams and to have a fair playing field. The game was about to be afoot, and I didn’t want anyone to feel they were at a disadvantage because they had no experience in sales, or engineering, or customer service, or what have you.
Note: If you’re not going the Harry Potter route, that’s ok – you can have people randomly divided into teams, as long as you’re making sure there’s even representation from each department in each competitive group.
I set one of the TV screens in the office to show off our the new House lists and scheduled a kick-off meeting.
Step Three: The Point System
So now that the teams were sorted, we had to set the rules. Our House Cup was going to last a quarter at a time, and while some points were entirely gratuitous, I wanted the majority of them to be rooted in the success of the company.
The gratuitous points included:
|Winning Ping Pong||1|
|Helping with event setup/tear-down||5|
|Hosting a Lunch & Learn or Brown Bag||25|
|Participating in team events/outings||5|
|Winning team competitions (ie. Bowling)||50 (because it’s really fun to shout “50 points to Gryffindor!”)|
|Bringing food for the office||5|
|Running or unloading the dishwasher||5|
However, for the slightly less fluffy, I went straight to the source. I got buy-in from each of the department leads, or at least a manager. I wanted to know exactly how they were tracking their goals, and which metrics should be highlighted during the games. Each manager gave me a list of the wins they valued most, and I sat down with our COO and CEO to see how these should be valued across the organization:
|Breaking a record (ie. Highest sales, most tickets solved in a month, best-ever open rate)||100|
|Launching a new feature||50|
|Closing an enterprise-level sale||50|
|Each new article published||15|
|Each bug fixed||5|
|Each support ticket solved||5|
We actually developed a very comprehensive list, and I set up a Google Form so managers could add to a spreadsheet tracking each quarter’s wins easily – all they needed to do was write the name of the employee and select their win from a list, or type in “other” and what they felt the value should be. It was a great opportunity for managers to recognize their team’s accomplishments while sharing their appreciation with the rest of the company – especially when someone does something novel. You never know what comes up!
I also asked the managers to be the face of the award – it would matter more for the team to hear that their boss or executive appreciates the work they’ve done than it would for me to pipe up with the points.
Step Four: The Stakes
What’s a game without something at stake? With $20 per champion approved, I sent out a quick survey to see what participants wanted most. Our options included:
- Professional carwash and detailing
- Amazon gift cards
- Happy Hour
- Catered lunch
The first time we did this, the carwash was the clear winner. I held onto this information until the next round.
Step Five: The Kick-Off
It was time to have those kick-off meetings! I suggest putting some time on all the participants’ calendars and bringing some pizzas. Luckily we were in a small enough company that everyone knew each other’s names at the very least, but if this isn’t true for your team, this is the icebreaker moment.
I thanked them for being my
first-years guinea pigs and explained how the game would work. Starting the 1st of the new quarter, all of their triumphs contributions to the company would count towards the House Cup. I walked through the pre-approved list of point-getting activities and had participants circle up with their new Houses to vote for a team captain – the person I’d be able to workshop ideas with (and check in on to make sure people were enjoying themselves throughout the games).
After the meeting, I published which actions were worth how many points, and kept it accessible for the team throughout the quarter.
Step Six: The Games
From here it’s pretty smooth sailing! As the game’s headmaster-slash-referee, it was my job to collect and track points, and I updated them on our team’s intranet and screens weekly – and taunted the losing teams occasionally. Nothing turns a Gryffindor redder than knowing Hufflepuff is wiping the floor with them!
I also actively looked for ways to incorporate the games into team-wide programs. Every office off-site became part of the competition, and usually lent itself to it well! We awarded 200 points to the House that could complete an Escape the Room game the fastest, and another 200 points to the Bowling Tournament champion House. When the CEO wanted to get better attendance for Lunch & Learns, we offered 5 points to each attendee and saw a much better turnout.
Step Seven: The Winners
With a week left in the quarter, I published the last point update. Usually, there would be two or three Houses that could conceivably finish on top, and they would get pretty competitive during that last week, rallying around any opportunity to earn points as a team.
Once the quarter officially closed, I tallied the final points and made sure we’d have an announcement in the first All-Hands meeting of the new quarter, with the final point totals and the prizes ready to be awarded. Of course, this was done with the best damn Dumbledore impression you could imagine.
Step Eight: Reevaluate, Rinse, Repeat
Every team is different, and as ours grew we continued to change the game. We did this on a quarterly basis and mixed up the teams twice a year just to let them get to know and work with more new people. We also reevaluated the point values as each new quarter began, and adjusted as needed. And the prize? That was updated each quarter as well.
It wasn’t a difficult competition to put together, but it certainly made an impact! Suddenly employees from Sales and Engineering were spending lunches together, and our Marketing team knew what Customer Service was working on – and how they were kicking butt! And while not every participant was into Harry Potter, we got more and more people involved in the competition as each new quarter opened up.
If your company culture could use a healthy dose of competition, give it a try, and feel free to personalize a House Cup that suits your company’s values. Happy Wizarding!
Tis is a 20-something recruiter, startup enthusiast, finance blogger, and proud feminist-slash-crazy cat lady. Find her on Twitter or check out the blog for lifehacks and musings on personal finance, professional growth, and enjoying the journey to early retirement.
Image via Unsplash