Turning Employee Engagement into Innovation

Rewards and Recognition

Turning Employee Engagement into Innovationby James Pasmantier

As we have discussed in previous posts, proper campaign design (targeted- vs. broad-spectrum) and building awareness are crucial to the success of any innovation program. But even if your program is well-planned and well-publicized, if your employees aren’t engaged it’s likely to fail.

But generating workplace engagement can be difficult. Business thinker Gary Hamel cites a Towers Perrin study that discovered only one-fifth of employees are truly engaged in their work—meaning they’re fully invested and would “go the extra mile” for their employer. The rest ranged from disengaged (38%) to indifferent (41%). This feeling of detachment, and especially the sense of not having a voice in the company, is also a large factor in why employees leave their jobs.

However, there are a number of different ways to motivate and engage your employees. The two most common methods are reward and recognition. While often used interchangeably, they are really two different practices – each with its own benefits. Deciding on which ones to leverage and how can dramatically impact the success of your innovation initiatives.


Rewards—both financial and non-financial—can play an important part in an innovation initiative. However, at Brightidea we recommend that financial or material rewards be reserved primarily for public campaigns, where incentives are necessary to attract attention and drive large-scale participation. For example, GE’s Ecomagination Challenge has attracted tens of thousands of participants motivated by the $200 million purse.

For internal-facing challenges, financial rewards can become problematic, both considering logistics of global application and the ability to sustain motivation overtime. Some issues include:

  • Employees may consider financial rewards an entitlement, and continue to expect them in the future.
  • Cash incentives may not translate appropriately to different countries with differences in pay and cost of living.
  • Legal implications as the challenge and rewards may constitute a contest or gift, and need to be reported and taxed accordingly.
  • Financial rewards may not be sustainable for long-term or large-scale campaigns, as well as for smaller companies or departments with limited budgets.

Most importantly, financial rewards may actually prevent building a culture of innovation by promoting participation driven by personal gain.

Non-financial and non-material rewards, however, are great ways to motivate your employees while incentivizing being part of a larger team and collaborating for the improvement of the company as a whole.

Non-financial rewards can be:

  • Lunch with the CEO
  • Assignment to develop and implement the idea, and see it through to completion
  • Days off or workplace perks (e.g. premium parking spots, etc.)

By thinking outside the box and creatively tapping the spirit of co-creation and collaboration, non-financial rewards can have a positive impact on sustaining participation from employees in a variety of different internal innovation campaigns.


Recognizing employees for their contributions can provide much more than just a psychological benefit. Management consultant and author Cindy Ventrice states that, as long as employees have what is considered a fair wage, “money is not really a factor in how motivated they are.” Instead, it comes down to feeling valued in the workplace, that their thoughts and opinions matter, and that there is opportunity for learning and advancement.

Managers can recognize employees in a variety of ways:

  • Employee of the month plaque or featured on the company website or internal intranet, or campaign homepage
  • Email newsletters or company blogs
  • Department leaderboards that highlight the top performers and create friendly competition
  • Public acknowledgment during meetings or other events
  • A personal note to say “thank you”

While these are all virtually without cost, they are essential to building trust between employees and managers, and can encouraging your employees to achieve more and continue to think outside the box.
There are several practices to take into consideration when approaching employee recognition. Some of the most important practices are:

  • Consistency: It’s crucial that recognition is consistent to avoid confusion and hurt feelings. It will also make it easier for other employees to model the desired thoughts and actions. Establish a guideline for desired performance or actions to help keep recognition consistent.
  • Communication: It’s important to be clear about what and why your employee is being recognized. Not only is it a chance to make it apparent that you’re paying attention, but also you have the opportunity to provide other feedback – areas of improvement, weaknesses, etc.
  • Personalization: Different employees want different recognition. Some may want to be publicly recognized, others may simple want a pat on the back. It’s important to always keep your recognition personal. A boilerplate note given to every team member does little to inspire them to go the extra mile.
  • Reward Effort, Not Just Success: Enthusiasm and effort are as just as important to recognize as success. Even if it ends in failure, constructive criticism along with praise will build trust and encourage employees to take meaningful risks.

Streamline and Automate Recognition

Engaging and recognizing employees on multiple fronts can seem like a daunting task. However, software solutions (such as Brightidea) can help you manage your recognition plans by creating a single platform for both employee collaboration and recognition from management. These solutions integrate recognition systems with features such as:

  • Blogs
  • Reputation Points for system activity (log-ins, idea submissions, votes, comments)
  • Homepage Leaderboard Widgets/Navigation
  • Activity feeds and micro-blogging
  • Collaboration Rooms
  • Project Fan-pages

With dynamic user profiles and analytics on all system activity, innovation management software can also help you keep track and compare user activity and give you real-time statistics about top contributors and the impact on the company from concept to cash overtime.

Recognition in the Innovation Community

Recognition is a crucial component to a building a sustained and thriving innovation community. First, encouraging greater communication and transparency builds trust between employees and managers. In this environment, employees can contribute ideas without the fear of being “wrong.” leading to a freer flow of thoughts and ideas. Business innovation author Steven Johnson claims that this environment is “where good ideas come from.” Outlying and disruptive ideas often come from these “liquid networks,” where information is freely traded.

Employees also want to be acknowledged for their ideas. But it is also crucial to acknowledge the efforts of contributors. The support players who contribute and help develop an idea are essential to the ideation process, and should be recognized with their own feedback and praise. In recognizing along the entire innovation lifecycle, and closing the loop of communication from initial idea collection through implementation, you increase the likelihood of garnering participation in future campaigns.

Finally, rewards and recognition are not mutually exclusive. Together, they can jumpstart your workplace by getting people excited and making meaningful contributions. However, while rewards can help keep your workers motivated, it’s recognition that builds a truly innovative culture. In the end, it’s showing your employees that their contributions are seen by their managers, respected, and valued that will have the most positive impact on your business and bring real results for your innovation initiatives.

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James PasmantierJames is an innovation management expert with over 12 years of experience and the Vice President of Professional Services at Brightidea. He oversees the success of all client innovation campaigns, in particular focusing on best practices and large-scale rollouts.

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6 Responses to Turning Employee Engagement into Innovation

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  2. Drew Hawkins says:

    I really like your emphasis on recognition and non-monetary incentives. Cash awards will often times become blurred with normal compensation, which is where that “entitlement” factor you mentioned kicks in. Simple acts of recognition are a great start. Even noncash rewards carry a lot more trophy value than other financial incentives.

  3. Xavier Gallardo says:

    Great post James! Congratulations!!

    Creative ways to engage the innovation workteams not related with cash awards, are even more needed in this times of economic restrictions in most of the companies.

  4. Nancy Pekar says:

    Great post. Recognition programs definitely help to foster innovation. People like to be (and deserve to be, IMHO) recognized for their innovations – and often that recognition doesn’t have to come with a check. Another aspect to keep in mind is to look externally for awards. NASA has used an internal recognition program (its Inventions and Contributions Board) and it has pursued awards like the R&D 100. The external validation is not only appreciated by the innovators, but also can help to stimulate commercialization. Fuentek’s Nannette Stangle-Castor discussed this in a podcast (http://bit.ly/e5EoIf) and she co-authored an article with Laurel Stauber of NASA’s Glenn Research Center – it’s in the fortcoming issue of PDMA’s Visions magazine.

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