In idea campaigns, rewards are frequently viewed as crucial. It is common to offer prizes to individuals who submit innovative ideas. It is important to remember that participants can share their ideas and are not obligated to spend time in the system or forfeit their intellectual property.

Although rewards can initially increase participation and generate excitement, they can also have negative long-term effects on the health of your idea generation program.

We worked with a client in the services industry who offered significant tangible rewards, such as cash and holidays, to incentivize idea submissions. While this approach was effective at first, it ultimately led to a decline in commenting and collaboration. Participants only saw value in submitting ideas and lost interest in other aspects of the program. As a result, our client stopped offering rewards, which unfortunately led to a lack of interest in the program overall.

The two-sided impact of the rewards on motivation

The issue at hand highlights a major concern with using rewards - once they are implemented, it can be difficult to remove them. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the substitution effect in psychology.

The following experiment helps to clarify the problem.

A group of children were given ten minutes to paint whatever they wanted. Most of them enjoyed being creative, but a few found it boring and didn't fully participate.

Then they were told they would receive rewards for their paintings - a gold star, a piece of chocolate, etc. They did the exercise again for ten minutes and all kids got similar results.

Finally, they took away the rewards and did it for a third time. Even the kids who were excited about painting at first became less interested and made less creative paintings.

It turns out that the act of painting itself was the motivation for the kids. But when they were rewarded for it, the pleasure was replaced by the reward. And when the reward was taken away, their original interest decreased. This effect has been observed in many similar experiments with both kids and adults.

The challenge lies in finding the right balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and in directing rewards toward the most relevant areas of the process.

Categories of motivators

Intrinsic motivations come from within and are not influenced by external factors. Dan Pink discussed three main categories of intrinsic motivators in his book "Drive": autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

  • Autonomy - having the freedom to choose how to tackle a task or challenge.

  • Mastery - to become better at something and develop confidence and expertise.

  • Purpose - to be aligned with a common goal and vision.

Online ideation campaigns offer participants a significant level of autonomy. They have the freedom to decline participation, and if they decide to take part, they can choose when and to what extent they want to be involved.

When employees master their skills, they can benefit from learning from the valuable insights of others and collaborating with experts throughout the company. Having your idea developed by colleagues or seeing it come to fruition can provide a significant boost in confidence regarding your own abilities and reputation.

Purpose is a strong driver within collaborative innovation, and it can be seen in the following examples:

  • The company has a clear vision and purpose for the ideation. There is a shared goal to which everybody is aligned. If this purpose is worthy, engaging, and in harmony with the individuals, it can be a powerful driver.

  • A desire to solve problems. Many individuals are strongly motivated to figure out a solution to a difficult problem. Idea campaigns are an ideal way to tap into this motivation and create a compelling sense of purpose.

  • A desire to help others. A sponsor who is well-known and respected can drive engagement by asking for help. Ideas from fellow employees can drive collaboration and lead to stronger concepts.

Most organizations rely on intrinsic motivation to create and maintain momentum. It's advisable to steer clear of rewards at the outset and instead focus on identifying these natural motivators that inspire people, as mentioned earlier, and additionally:

  • A fun mascot for branding can create an identity for the program. It’s important to make it feel welcoming to employees while also demonstrating a willingness to consider ideas seriously.

  • Make use of key sponsors who have a reputation for getting things done, and garner general support from the employee base.

  • Be consistent with your follow-ups, and don’t allow cynicism to develop.

  • Celebrate successes, communicate them frequently, and recognize the participation of everybody.

“Are rewards important? Not really - something else motivates you to get involved. A reward is just a nice after-effect. What people really want most is feedback about their ideas, what happened, where did it go, is it being actioned by somebody?”

Innovation Manager at European Engineering Company (HYPE Client)


How to come up with the right rewards for your innovation program

Before implementing rewards, it's important to consider where they are needed the most.

Submitting ideas is a highly motivating task for most people, as they are eager to contribute to the future success of the company. However, commenting is often viewed as a less valued activity, even though it is equally crucial for success.

Encouraging frequent and constructive collaboration by offering rewards can foster the right behaviors in the community. Evaluating ideas is also a significant task that is necessary for developing concepts and ideas that can progress through the innovation pipeline. The implementation of ideas is where ideation truly meets innovation.

One client shared how they equally reward both the ideator and the implementor each month, even though they are typically different individuals who are part of the same story.

According to Dan Pink, rewards can have a negative effect on creative tasks but can improve performance for routine and repetitive work. In the innovation process, reviewing is often a challenge due to the time it takes, the complexity of ideas, and the high volume of work. However, evaluations may be the most suitable part of the process for offering external rewards.

“Creativity-supporting organizations consistently reward creativity, but they avoid using money to ‘bribe’ people to come up with innovative ideas. Because monetary rewards make people feel as if they are being controlled, such a tactic probably won’t work.”

How to Kill Creativity, Harvard Business Review, Teresa Amabile


How to minimize the risk of using a rewards system

Rewards that are predictable have the potential to cause the most harm, such as giving cash prizes for winning ideas. On the other hand, unexpected rewards can have a positive impact with less risk involved.

A logistics client of ours in Europe has tried offering random rewards to increase interest. By leaving a comment on an idea in a campaign, employees are eligible to enter a prize draw at the end. For employees, it's simply a matter of participating to have a chance to win. Once they are in the system, the goal is for their ideas and contributions to spark more interest and engagement.

Tactics like this can help increase awareness and encourage more people to participate in the campaigns.

Key Points

  • Once rewards are in place, it can be hard to take them away.

  • Avoid substituting intrinsic motivations with rewards.

  • Rewards can work best on less glamorous tasks like commenting or reviewing.

  • Intrinsic motivations stem from autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

  • Monetary rewards can make people feel they are being controlled.

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