Motivating Innovation: What the Research Tells Us

September 29, 2014

What motivates you?  How is that similar or different from what drives “the innovator” in or around us?  And how do some organizations – Google, 3M, Amazon, Apple, Samsung – remain innovative long after the well has dried up for many of their early peers?

These are critical questions to understand when creating and nurturing an innovation culture.  To pinpoint and cultivate the forces that drive individuals or groups to do something extraordinary may be the only thing that separates a great idea from a transformative new solution.

Motivating Innovation: What the Research Tells UsWorking with innovators every day it becomes quickly clear that diverse but shared interests are pushing them forward.  Fundamentally (or perhaps genetically) they are driven by a deep desire to transcend problems by building creative solutions. And they often need reassurance that if their tireless efforts do lead to an exciting product, that, in addition to the satisfaction of solving a problem, they will also derive a fair share of the economic bounty.

When exploring what drives people we often hear of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations — intrinsic being internally rewarding; extrinsic being to please someone else, earn a reward or avoid some form of punishment.  But it is also clear that these principles are at work in driving organizations as well.  Intrinsic being at the core of the organizational culture and extrinsic being embedded in the compensation systems.

When making investments, both drivers are critical to understand and interweave. Of the two, however, intrinsic motivators are critically important in supporting the creativity needed to drive transformative innovation.  To help simplify this I often refer to them as the “five C’s:”

Challenge: Knowing that what we are trying to do is difficult (if not impossible) can propel true innovators to new heights.

Curiosity: Something that truly captures our attention or imagination and compels us to figure it out.

Collaboration: When individuals, together, achieve something that neither could have achieved alone, collaboration becomes highly rewarding.

Competition: Competitive comparisons help to sharpen our focus and reinforce our confidence that we are good and/or improving.

Control: The ability to select what we pursue, and to have the responsibility for critical decisions, is an excellent intrinsic motivator.

Interestingly, the research is mixed on the impact of compensation as a motivator, showing in several studies that offering only financial compensation for tasks that one already enjoys doing can backfire, making it challenging to determine how best to interweave outcome sharing in ways that also sustain long term engagement.

Of course, motivation and effectiveness are two different things.  One striking feature of all highly innovative organizations is that everyone involved in the enterprise — employees from the top to the bottom — can generally describe what makes the organization special.  They project an overriding vision and generate a culture that individuals and teams (and often customers) can align with; a platform that provides the energy needed to persist in the face of setbacks.  A vision that honors the difficulty and associated failures while availing itself of the investment of time, energy, and resources required to achieve success.  It becomes their identity; it defines who they are.

At this stage intensity often becomes the separator.  Those who change the world are those extraordinary and resilient individuals and teams who sustain high expectations, oftentimes against all odds.  To be the biggest or the best or the most impactful — these are central sources of motivational gravity.  To be audacious, not because “the how” is particularly clear but because “the why” and the “what if we could” is breathtaking.

Motivating ourselves is one thing but motivating groups is yet another.  Next time we’ll be exploring the nature of highly impactful inter-disciplinary collaborations and then the habits of continuously impactful innovators.