Feature Article - July/August 2017

Innovation Inspiration

Incentives, Rewards Help Incite New Ideas

By Deborah L. Vence

Since the 1990s, research has shown that work has become a greater part of establishing and maintaining individual self-identity than either family or community influence. So, meeting employee needs in the workplace have further-reaching consequences than job performance.

It's possible to increase performance in targeted areas by letting employees know what is needed of them and providing opportunities to share in the rewards of success.

"Leaders would be well-served to appreciate and embrace the opportunity to help their employees become enriched human beings who can more richly contribute to their job, their family and friends, and to their community," Smith said. "I'm confident that enriched employees who are fully engaged in their work will bring new energy to their workplaces and yield a wealth of innovative ideas."

Innovation is one of many "behaviors" that a company may want to inspire their people to achieve, noted Richard Blabolil, president of Rosemont, Ill.-based Marketing Innovators.

"To invite innovation, a company may find it useful to give examples of what innovation can be," he said.

For instance, innovation can involve reapplying an existing product, service or activity in a new way, or it can involve creating an entirely new product or service.

"Helping employees frame the context of innovation can certainly get the ideas flowing. One context for innovation can be to encourage employees to reflect on the tasks or activities in their job that are the most frustrating and time-consuming," he said.

"Are there ways or innovations that they can come up with to refine these processes, automate them or streamline them? Once you set these wheels in motion, recognize those ideas and implementations with rewards and appreciation," he suggested. "Too often people may be constrained by the fact that they believe innovation has to be about a new product or invention, rather than a refinement or improvement to an existing situation."

Innovation also can be represented by the development of the skill sets of team members.

"Encourage the pursuit of training and problem-solving as a means of innovating your greatest asset: your people," Blabolil added.

An example is a high-tech global corporation that communicates to its employees a host of examples of what they mean by innovation.

"Employees are encouraged to think big and small; revenue-generating and cost-saving; quality-minded and efficiency-focused; people-centered and service-oriented," he said. "All ideas are reviewed and recognized, while on a quarterly basis 'key' ideas are communicated to the company and rewarded."

In Transition

Communications are essential to transitions.

"Helping people stay on track, know what to expect, and remain focused on organizational and personal goals can ease stress and provide a pathway through confusing circumstances," Adams said.

And, "Incentive and rewards programs, at their heart, are communications programs that set expectations and make priorities clear," she said. "They have an important role to play in keeping top performers working toward the right things and also provide opportunities for feedback on achievements in the evolving organization."

Blabolil agreed.

"All companies need communication," he said. However, companies that are going through a transition are in critical need for constant communication.

"Incentives and rewards can be used to promote constant communications up and down the organization. Social recognition, badges and gamification techniques can be very effective to generate and reinforce channels of communications," he said. "Then, incentives and rewards can be used to thank employees for taking action and being involved in the transition."

Research supports Smith's belief that company culture is a critical driver of innovation and overall business success.

"In fact, two-thirds of employees believe that company culture is very important to the success of their organizations, stating that it has the greatest impact on morale and productivity," she said.

Revitalizing company culture is often an overlooked opportunity to jump-start business improvements and should be treated as a critical component of overall business strategy.

"While company culture may be the secret weapon for innovation, it has suffered during the past few years. A majority of employees believe that the Great Recession had a negative impact on company culture. With layoffs, reduced benefits and wages, morale suffered and many workers became disengaged and [weren't] operating anywhere near their creative best," Smith noted.

What's also important is for leaders to regain employees' productivity and ignite innovation, especially if they are undergoing a change initiative or other transitional events.

"A healthy culture is important at any time, but in times of change your company culture alone can make or break the success of the change," Smith said. "Revitalizing company culture is often an overlooked opportunity to jump-start business improvements and should be treated as a critical component of overall business strategy. The keys to a better culture begin with benchmarking the current culture: how it is defined, what it means to employees, and what the organization would like it to be."

Incentives and recognition have proven to be effective tools for encouraging innovation. So, using your reward budget generously is important, especially if you're undergoing a transformation.