Money doesn’t always talk

It’s a question I hear often in the world I inhabit. Should you reward innovation with hard cash? And you know what? I don’t think you should.

I don’t mean that employees should not be rewarded for innovation. I’m just saying that the reward should comprise things like peer and management recognition, development opportunities, and where appropriate, participation in implementation of their big idea.

I’m not saying that you should not receive any financial benefit from innovating and sharing your ideas either. Just like you would with any other valued behaviours, core competencies and high performance, innovation can and should be measured and rewarded through existing bonus schemes and pay reviews. Just don’t treat it like a game show with lottery sized jackpots.

Innovation and ideation shouldn’t be an optional extra that attracts financial reward if you happen to come up with a corker. It should be a core competency that is ingrained in everyone’s psyche and embedded in every company’s reward structures, regardless of role and responsibility.

It should be incumbent on every paid employee to share their ideas on how to make their operation more efficient, more dependable, safer, slicker, and of course, more profitable.

Innovation and ideation is such a critical part of business you cannot afford to treat it as a bolt-on. Complacency, stagnation and ultimate extinction faces every company that doesn’t constantly seek ways of doing things better.

Here are my top five reasons why you shouldn’t treat innovation like a game show.

1 – Winners mean losers
When you turn innovation and ideation into a competition with cash prizes for the winners, what you actually create is a much larger pool of losers. You announce a competition, encourage everyone to enter, create buzz and anticipation before the big reveal. Then what? You’ve got one or two big winners and a lot of unlucky losers who discover that their hard work didn’t pay off. And unless you are a serial ideator (apologies, I think I just made that word up!) you’ll have probably played your trump card and you may well be less inclined or less able to enter next year’s innovation lottery.

2 – Lip service
People will soon realise that the ideas that win prizes are those that appeal to the judges. The judges are usually senior executives. So instead of pushing the boundaries of creativity they play it safe. They submit ideas designed to please management, which are likely to follow existing thinking and historical management approaches and habits. Doesn’t sound much like innovation to me.

Many years ago I won an international essay competition with a healthy cash prize presented by the UK Home Secretary. The judges were senior police officers. My approach to the essay was to research what I believed the prevailing thinking was on crime prevention and write based upon what I believed my paymasters wanted to read. The result was very safe, politically correct and credible. And of course beautifully written…

Looking back, the fact that I didn’t believe a word of it and I knew that it would change nothing other than reduce my overdraft is a shame. As an intellectual exercise it was top drawer. Did it change the face of community policing in the UK? Nope.

3 – Secrecy
In the quest for the big cash win, fearing its theft, the ideator (there’s that word again) will protect his or her idea from prying eyes. A shroud of secrecy will descend on the idea just when it should be benefiting from the wisdom of the crowd – which is the primary ailment you are trying to fix by offering the prize in the first place.

4 – Division
Innovation involves many people beyond the originator. Ideas improve as they evolve. Many people are likely to have a hand in turning an idea into a reality. So how do you divvy up a large cash award fairly, without causing disharmony? Who gets left out of the equation? Who gets the lion’s share? It’s a nailed on recipe for disharmony.

5 – It’s not about the money
All the evidence suggests that one’s personal need for idea validation and recognition is usually more important than financial reward. Ask Gallup. Ask Towers Watson. Ask the UK Government’s Engaging for Successteam. They’ll all tell you that financial reward sits further down the list of workplace motivational factors than recognition, trust and development opportunity.

The added bonus is the currency of recognition and trust are two forms of reward where companies can afford to print their own dollars – they cost nothing. There really is no excuse.

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