The Link Between Motivation and Innovation

By Don Jacobson

  Click here for the printer-friendly version of this article.

In the early days of the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army's top leadership did a very smart thing:


          They listened to one of their enlisted men.


After returning from a tour 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 made numerous changes to equipment design and procurement.


Romero's story is a great one, but may not have ended the way it did had his email not gone viral.


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 systematically 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 implementing their own idea. 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."


"The system" is made up of people--us.


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. In fact, one of my litmus tests for whether my management team is getting it right is the percentage of new ideas we implement that came from the front lines. (Hint: If most of the innovations we have implemented did not come from the front lines, we're getting it wrong.)


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
It is virtually impossible for a mid-level manager to motivate his/her employees without getting to know them. Whenever starting a new job, all managers should make a point of having a one-on-one meeting with each member of their staff. Managers who do not know what makes each employee tick will find it very difficult to motivate them. Similarly, if the manager does not know an employee's strengths, he will be unlikely to find the right role for them. These one-on-one sessions are a great opportunity to encourage employees to contribute their ideas. 


2. Challenge them to Improve the Operation
One way for managers to make it clear that they welcome input and suggestions is to give each employee a clear mandate in their work requirements to take a hard look at the whole operation and make recommendations for improvements. This sets down a marker that all employees are expected to contribute their ideas. It is equally important to comment on each employee's efforts in this area at evaluation time.


3. "Customer for a Day"
Another mechanism manager can use to elicit suggestions is to have each employee be "Customer for a Day." In offices that have customers, whether they be internal or external, it can be quite enlightening to look at the operation from the client's point of view. The most engaged and creative employees (i.e. the "Master Sergeant Romeros" of the operation) will probably identify a long list of things that can be improved to make the customer's experience more comfortable, transparent and efficient. At a minimum, the experience will sensitize employees to any hardships experienced by the customer. (Note: Employees would not really be "Customer" for the whole day. But they should be given sufficient time to go all the way through the process, and then to write up their impressions and suggestions for the supervisor.)


4. The Great Idea Award
It is also important to find a way to reward or recognize employees whose suggestions help improve the operation. One option is to establish a Great Idea Award and give the recipient a customized certificate. Other options could be to give them a logo item, a cash award or even a day off (depending both on what the parent agency permits and what the employee values most). Managers at agencies that offer cash awards to employees who make money-saving suggestions should find out the procedures and use that mechanism whenever appropriate.


5. Don't Forget the Implementation
A crucial part of this whole equation is the actual implementation of the great ideas generated by employees. Without follow-through, the organization simply ends up with a long list of unused suggestions-and a lot of frustrated employees. To the extent possible, managers should put the person who suggested a great idea in charge of the actual implementation. The initiator of an innovative idea usually has a sense of ownership and is highly motivated to see their suggestion put into effect. Those managers who try to take the lead on all new initiatives will find themselves overworked and unable to accomplish everything they would like. By delegating the implementation, the managers can give their employees a terrific developmental opportunity, with the manager just needing to provide guidance and support.


Don't be afraid to pilot new ideas on a small scale to see if they work. If a proposed innovation might work, doesn't violate any laws or regulations and doesn't cost anything (aside from time), then there is almost nothing to lose--and much to gain in terms of employee motivation.


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.


  Click here for the printer-friendly version of this article.