How To Motivate Innovators

December 7, 2010  

Organizations use a variety of tools to motivate employees to participate in their innovation efforts.

Innovation and points systemsThe most common form of motivation involves compensation via a points system.  When you contribute an idea, solution, comment or vote, you get points – much like American Express Membership Rewards points – that can be used to buy a variety of items: company T-shirts, mugs, and other “exciting” things.  For some reason this reminds me of the arcade games like skeeball where you would win tickets that could be exchanged for wonderful items like fake vampire fangs or rubber spiders.

Some companies have taken the concept a bit further and allowed people to accumulate points that can be used in auctions.  Once a month the company holds an auction for a trip to, say, Tahiti.  Anyone with points can join the bidding.  This encourages people to earn and save as many points as possible so that they can have a chance at some really big prizes.  This supposedly stimulates contributions to innovation.

A third model that doesn’t necessarily need a points system involves “priceless” awards.  Remember the Mastercard commercials?  These are items that you can’t buy with money: dinner with the CEO, a prime parking space or an extra week of vacation.  These types of prizes are particularly enticing because no amount of money can buy them

The thing that these three models have in common is that the prize is tangible.  Some might call it an extrinsic form of motivation.  Chip Conley, author of Peak, might point out that these are the lowest rung of motivations on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food and shelter/safety and security.

There is an opportunity for other, potentially more effective forms of motivation.

At the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy (going back to Conley’s concept), you will find self-actualization.  In the innovation/business world, this is where “the work is its own reward.” The open source software movement was largely built on this model.  Millions of people have helped develop software without any formal extrinsic compensation. Many do it just because it feels good to contribute.  For some, it is about building software that will bring down the “evil empire” (aka Microsoft).

Although this is an incredibly effective motivator for many, this is difficult to put into practice inside of a “typical” organization.  Ok, when I worked for a Formula 1 team, people there truly love their work because they were fans of the sport.  But this is usually the exception, not the rule.  At least from my experience.

Between food & shelter and self-actualization lies the most under-utilized form of motivation: peer recognition.  This can be extremely effective, especially inside of organizations where “intelligence” is highly valued.  Pharmaceutical companies, R&D departments, and NASA come to mind off the top of my head.

For some individuals, being recognized by their peers is the highest form of motivation.  In come circles, being published in a peer reviewed journal is an incredible honor.

Therefore find ways of recognizing people, especially when it involves peer recognition.

One way to do this if you use a points system like the ones described above, is to create a leader board.  This creates a friendly competition and helps individuals stand out from the crowd based on their contributions.

Another approach, of course, is to develop a good recognition program as part of your communication plans.  Many companies do this, but they rarely do it well.  Here’s the real opportunity…

Stop recognizing people for doing their job. When you hire someone to work for you, it should be expected that they are competent.  When you recognize people for doing what they are hired to do, it reinforces a “culture” where the status quo is good enough.

Instead, recognize (and reward) people for going beyond their job; for doing things that are unexpected.

If you want to encourage open innovation or cross-business unit collaboration, then recognize people for that.  If you want employees to take risks, make a big deal out of individuals who do that.  If you want to let people know that failure is ok – when done the right way – then promote situations where something didn’t work as planned yet powerful lessons were learned and risk was mitigated risk.

Define what your organization values and then reward on that.

Culture is sometimes defined as “a network of conversations.” What they say to each other and what they think to themselves.  Shift the conversations and you begin to shift the culture.  These types of programs are a great opportunity to create an environment of innovation and promote the values/conversations you want to instill.

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4 Responses to “How To Motivate Innovators”

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  4. Stop Recognizing People for Doing their Job | Technogenii.net | Kristina Schneider | Organizational Learning and Performance Technologist, Author and Blogger on October 13th, 2011 12:15 pm

    [...] her mind?”,  you ask yourself. Nope! And neither is Stephen Shapiro who wrote a great bit on How To Motivate Innovators. Stop recognizing people for doing their job. When you hire someone to work for you, it should be [...]