How to handle rewards and motivation in idea management campaigns

Rewards are often considered an essential part of idea campaigns, it seems natural to give out prizes to those people who submit breakthrough concepts. After all, people have a choice whether to share their idea, nobody can force them to spend time in the system, and willingly give over their intellectual property.

However, rewards are a complicated topic, they can have short term effects on participation and interest levels, generating excitement – but they can also have severe detrimental effects on the long term health of your program. For example, a client of ours in a services industry started their initiative with substantial tangible rewards, including cash and holidays for winning idea authors. These rewards had the desired impact at first, but over time the focus on rewarding ideators meant that commenting and collaborating dramatically declined. People only saw value in the idea submission. Subsequently, they decided to stop issuing rewards – the result was a lack of interest in the program altogether.

The substitution effect

This problem summarises the biggest warning we’ve discovered with rewards – if you put them in, you will struggle to take them out. In psychology this is known as the effect of substitution; one experiment helps to clarify the problem:

A group of children were given ten minutes to freely paint pictures, most of the children enjoyed being creative, and a handful found it boring and did not fully engage – as you might expect. Next they told the children that they would receive rewards for their paintings, a gold star, a chocolate, etc. They ran the ten minute exercise again, and had similar results. Finally, they took the rewards away, and ran it for a third time. Now, even those children who were originally highly engaged became less engaged, and produced less creative paintings. The act of painting itself was the motivation for the children – but after being rewarded for it, the pleasure has been substituted for the reward, and when the reward is taken away the original interest had declined. This substitution effect has been seen in many similar experiments in both adults and children.

The challenge lies in finding the right balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and in directing rewards towards the most relevant areas of the process.

Intrinsic motivations

Intrinsic motivations are those which are not controlled by external factors, but stem from an innate desire to act. Dan Pink, in his book Drive, describes three primary categories of intrinsic motivators: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

  • Autonomy – having the freedom to choose how to tackle a task or challenge

  • Mastery – to become better at something, develop confidence and expertise

  • Purpose – to be aligned with a common goal and vision

Participants have a good deal of autonomy when it comes to online ideation campaigns – they don’t have to take part, and if they do, they can often choose when and to what extent to do so.

Mastery can lend itself well, allowing employees to learn from the interesting contributions of others, and to engage with experts from around the company. To have your idea developed by others, or to see it implemented, can be a tremendous boost to one’s confidence about their own ability and reputation.

Purpose is a strong driver within collaborative innovation, and it can be seen in the following examples:

  • The company has a clear vision and purpose for the ideation – there is a shared goal to which everybody is aligned. If this purpose is worthy, engaging, and in harmony with the individuals, it can be a powerful driver.

  • A desire to solve problems. Many individuals are strongly motivated to figure out a solution to a difficult problem. Idea campaigns are an ideal way to tap into this motivation and create a compelling sense of purpose.

  • A desire to help others. A sponsor who is well known and respected can drive engagement by asking for help. Ideas from fellow employees can drive collaboration and lead to stronger concepts.

In most organizations the culture is such that intrinsic motivations are enough to build and sustain momentum. It is recommended to try to avoid the use of rewards at first, and seek to find these inherent levers which engage people, such as those mentioned above, and additionally:

  • fun mascot for branding can create an identity for the program. It’s important to make it feel welcoming to employees, while also demonstrating a willingness to consider ideas seriously.

  • Make use of key sponsors who have a reputation for getting things done, and garner general support from the employee base.

  • Be consistent with follow-up, don’t allow cynicism to develop.

  • Celebrate successes, communicate them frequently, and recognize the participation of everybody.

“Are rewards important? Not really – something else motivates you to get involved. A reward is just a nice after effect. What people really want most is feedback about their ideas, what happened, where did it go, is it being actioned by somebody?” – Innovation Manager at European Engineering Company (HYPE Client)

Where rewards make most sense

When implementing rewards, consider first where they are most needed.

The job of submitting ideas is already preloaded with strong motivation – most people want to put their ideas into the system given the chance to do so. Commenting however can sometimes be seen as a less appreciated activity, but is just as critical for success. Rewarding frequent and constructive collaboration can encourage the right behaviors in the community. Evaluating ideas is also seen as a less glamorous task, but is key to developing ideas and concepts which can traverse the innovation pipeline. Similarly is the task of implementing ideas, which is where ideation truly meets innovation. One client told us of how they reward both the ideator and the implementor equally each month – typically they are not the same person, but they are both part of the story.

Dan Pink cites examples where rewards have a negative impact on creative tasks, but for routine and repetitive work rewards can boost performance. Reviewing is often seen as a bottleneck in the innovation process – reviewers struggle to find the time, ideas can be complex to properly evaluate, and the volume is sometimes overwhelming. If there is one part of the process that is most congenial to extrinsic rewards, it might be the evaluations.

“Creativity-supporting organizations consistently reward creativity, but they avoid using money to ‘bribe’ people to come up with innovative ideas. Because monetary rewards make people feel as if they are being controlled, such a tactic probably won’t work.” – How to Kill Creativity, Harvard Business Review, Teresa Amabile

Unexpected rewards pose less risk

Rewards which are expected have the most potential for damage – cash prizes for the winning ideas, for example. Unexpected rewards can have a positive impact however, with less risk. A European logistics client of ours has experimented with giving random rewards to boost interest, by contributing a comment to an idea in a campaign you’ll be entered into a draw for a prize at the end. For an employee it’s a matter of simply being in it to win it – a relatively small hurdle – but once in the system the hope is that ideas and contributions will spark more interest and drive more engagement. Tactics like this can be helpful to simply fuel awareness and get people moving into the campaigns.

Key Points

  • Once rewards are in place it can be hard to take them away

  • Avoid substituting the intrinsic motivations with rewards

  • Rewards can work best on the less glamorous tasks like commenting or reviewing

  • Intrinsic motivations stem from autonomy, mastery and purpose

  • Monetary rewards can make people feel they are being controlled

Published by

Tim Woods

Product manager (formerly software engineer and marketing manager) with 17 years of experience in the field of innovation management. South Coast of England.

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