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The Link Between Motivation and InnovationBy Don Jacobson
The U.S. Army's top leadership recently did a very smart thing:
They listened to one of their enlisted men.
After returning from the war in Afghanistan, Master Sergeant Rudy Romero sent a long, insightful email to a former commanding officer about the suitability of the equipment that the Army provides to GIs. The recipient forwarded the message to a few colleagues who forwarded it to a few more until, ultimately, it reached the Army's most senior enlisted soldier and the Army Chief of Staff. They took Romero's insights seriously and, as a result, the Army is now making numerous changes to equipment design and procurement.
Every government agency (and every large organization for that matter) has a number of front-line employees, like Romero, who have a gift for identifying better ways of doing things. Just about everyone else has good ideas from time to time as well. The question is, does management encourage everyone to contribute their ideas and then implement the best ones?
Employees in most organizations would like to feel that their ideas can make a difference in their workplace. For many people, in fact, there are few things more motivating than seeing--and assisting with--the successful implementation of an idea they suggested. The scarcity of this motivational force may be one of the biggest reasons why so many government employees feel that they are powerless and unable to change "the system."
All too often, supervisors overlook the possibility that their employees may be an untapped gold mine of good ideas. Sometimes this may be out of hubris, with the manager feeling that he/she knows best. In other cases, managers may ignore line employees' ideas out of insecurity, feeling threatened by subordinates who prove to be highly competent and creative.
No one has a monopoly on good ideas, however. Managers who are aggressive about eliciting the ideas of their staff find that getting everyone involved in the effort to improve the operation has an incredible multiplier effect on the rapidity of the change process and the commitment of employees to those changes. To do this, managers need to foster a climate of openness that gets employees engaged in the process of innovation and organizational renewal.
This article outlines five practices which, implemented together, represent an integrated approach to innovation and employee motivation that has proven to be very effective in the government context.
1. Get to Know Every Employee
2. Challenge them to Improve the Operation
3. "Customer for a Day"
4. The Great Idea Award
5. Don't Forget the Implementation
These are just a few suggested methods for encouraging employees to contribute their ideas for improving their organization. Implemented on their own, each of these practices would have limited impact. The key is to use a multifaceted approach that continually reinforces the fact that employees' ideas are welcome, valued, and rewarded. It would be awesome to see how much an organization's effectiveness could be improved if all managers were to systematically seek out and implement these kinds of suggestions from front-line employees.