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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Motivating Innovative Success

Occupy.  Davos.  Goldman Sachs.  ORNGE.  The Knowledge Economy.  Mental Health.  Public Health costs. 

Everyone I talk to is looking at individual, structural problems and wringing their hands in worry about what to do next.  Some of these folk are equally looking ahead at the emerging reality of the Knowledge Economy and wondering how we can get from here to there.

All these pieces are connected.  Like playing three-dimensional chess, we have to stop looking at individual social issues and see how they fit together into a holistic puzzle.  To do that, we need to revisit our understanding of how we can move our pieces and what strategies will help us get past our two-dimensional thought box.

The best place to start is with motivation.

“You eat what you kill” is a standard phrase in consulting land.  For employees in many a field, the rule tends to be that performance is rewarded by bonuses; if your colleagues get bonuses and you don’t, it’s because you’re a failure.  While financial reward might be good for pushing people to produce more, faster, or to be more aggressive in sales, it turns out financial reward is not the best motivator for innovative success. 

Many will say that statement flies in the phase of standard wisdom – money has always been success' reward.  For these people, I leave you two stories to consider; heliocentrism and evolution.  You can keep breaking down a pull door because you can’t push it open, but there might be an easier, more effective and less stressful way to get where you want to go – success in innovation, leadership in the Knowledge Economy.

     - Margaret Atwood


Nothing comes from nothing.  Creative ideas don’t magically pop into people’s heads, fully-formed.  If you want people to innovate, you have to provide them with raw material they can absorb and time to properly synthesize.  This can’t be a one-off affair; it has to be a life-long thing.

Fortunately, there are pretty good models out there to help make this happen in an affordable, accessible and efficient way.


Bring meaning into work.  While we like to differentiate between what we think motivates people at different stages of their life and in different roles, that’s largely a social construction.  What really motivates, say, a volunteer to give 200% is the same thing that motivates employees.  You gotta give them some skin in the game.

Having done a lot of time recruiting and supporting volunteers in my time, there are three things that are proven to keep them coming back for more:

1)      Recognition.  They aren’t tools, they're people.  Engage them as such.  Get to know them, learn about why they're volunteering and what their other interests are.  You never know where a potential for cross-pollination will arise and you’ll surely never find it if you don’t ask.

2)      Food.  Volunteers should always have access to at least snacks and drinks, like juice, coffee and tea.  It’s not hard to add some crackers and fruit to the mix.  The less your team needs to think about what and when to eat, the more cognitive energy (and physical strength) they have to dedicate to your cause.  The same holds true for employees, and the best employers always have a coffee/tea machine, some snacks and definitely a microwave and fridge.

3)      Meaningful work.  People get frustrated when they feel they are digging and filling in holes for no purpose.  They need to understand what the point is.  Having said this, if you’re delivering something with meaning that every volunteer or employee can latch on to, people will spend hours stickering cards in support of that cause.  You still want to mix up the tasks a bit and allow people to be challenged; you also want to set the example by having the people at the top of the food chain sitting down and do the grunt-work with everyone else.

One of my favourite campaign memories involves a long, tired night of stickering U-Vote-Ats for a provincial by-election in the GTA.  The exhausted team was sitting around a table, beavering away when my boss of the time, the former MPP for Stormont, Dundas and South Glengarry came in and sat down to sticker with us.  Jim Brownell sat there for hours, making silly jokes with the rest of us and just stickered.  It’s no wonder that people would travel across the province to support him, too.


Why do we have sex?  To leave progeny behind.  The same holds true for ideas; consciously or unconsciously, people who get engaged want to be leave something behind or be a part of something bigger than themselves that they feel has a good chance of enduring.  It’s the human equivalent, I think, of lekking behaviour.

If we can grasp this concept, consciously, we can build in legacy and meaning into work design.

My dad, a retired research historian, told me about a talk he was asked to give to one group or another.  He was asked what his fee was; my dad suggested to me that he didn’t have a fee and that the idea hadn’t occurred to him.  He enjoyed sharing his expertise on the subject; that was his motivation.  I told him he was missing an opportunity.  Iif he doesn’t need the extra cash and believes in his cause, why not has his fee be a donation to a charity or organization of his choice?

At the recent THINK2012 conference hosted by the amazing ORION Network, guest facilitators were paid in donations to causes they believed in.  It’s a good motivator; there’s no reason you can’t apply this in the workplace, too.

I would suggest that you want to give employees what they need to live, comfortably, and make sure salary always fits within that comfortable quality-of-life range.  Particularly if you’re a creative industry, though, tie success to meaning and legacy; give your workers public credit for what they accomplish, plus an opportunity (through donations-as-bonus) to build legacy by giving back to their community.  Remember, quality-of-life isn't about cash, it's about access and interaction.

If we’re all doing this proactively and benefiting from the process, that means government will have to spend less and charities will be able to spend less on marketing.

There’s really nothing new to the idea of proactively motivating your team to do what’s in your/your company’s best interest.  It’s been around since the days of Sun-Tzu.  All we need do now is make sure this wisdom is applied to the 21st Century context:

The best victory is when the opponent surrenders of its own accord before there are any actual hostilities... It is best to win without fighting.

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