The innovation industry, like any other industry, is full of buzzwords. People like to latch on to the latest academic-sounding terms and have lengthy discussions about them (Maybe you’ve already been contacted by someone who calls themselves a “thought leader” who will help you with your “ideation”.) This all sounds impressive, but the bottom line is “what is your company doing about it?” Are you innovating or not? Does your company have an innovation plan? Do you have a culture of innovation that starts at the top? Do you have an innovative vision? And do you offer your employees incentives for innovation?

Innovation buzzwords

Being in the trenches, I can tell you that most companies say they want to be innovative. But many just talk about it. Innovation is cool. It’s a topic that gets thrown around, but rarely implemented. I see lots of speakers whose whole message is innovation is cool, innovation is important, you should be innovating – and so on. But what’s missing? The how-to steps to actually get the process started – and the incentives to make it worthwhile for employees.

As someone who isn’t from the academic world, the focus of my keynotes has always been on the steps to actually get the process started, vs. merely contemplating it. But I added additional focus on the second half – incentivization – after a reaction I received after speaking at a teacher’s conference.

One person pulled me aside afterward, and essentially said that the methods I’d shown them were great. But it sounded like a lot of work. A few other teachers agreed. But please don’t misunderstand; these teachers aren’t lazy. They told me about all the time they spend on their own, outside of work, grading papers, preparing lesson plans, and learning on their own to keep up with changing subject matter. It’s not that they weren’t objecting to the idea of extra work. They were excited about the chance to innovate – but what they weren’t excited about – and what they objected to — was the idea of extra work (above and beyond their established roles) with no reward.

When I’ve tried to pitch executives on incentivizing employees who actively participate in innovation a couple of them told me that their employees didn’t need money or rewards to do it. I would beg to differ. Make them excited about innovation and putting in the extra time.

Don’t penalize innovation

Someone I know spent months in a training course to work for a major tax firm. He received a job offer – but turned it down. When I asked why, he told me about their intellectual property agreement.

The company wanted him to sign something which essentially said that any innovation he might create — improved procedures, better ways of preparing returns, collecting info, getting clients, technology, computer apps, etc. – would be 100% company property, and he would receive nothing in return. It even went so far as to try to cover any creation in the future, even after any end date of employment with them.

His reaction?

“Julie, not only does this give me zero incentive to ever improve or innovate – it makes me feel like this is a company that doesn’t respect its employees.”

Incentives for innovation

There are several effective ways to incentivize innovation within an organization:

Rewards and Recognition

Create reward systems that recognize and reward individuals or teams for their innovative contributions. This can include financial incentives, bonuses, promotions, and public recognition through awards or ceremonies.

Innovation Challenges and Competitions

Organize innovation challenges or competitions within your organization or community. Set clear goals and criteria, and offer attractive prizes or funding for the winning ideas or projects. This fosters a competitive spirit and encourages individuals to think creatively. People love to compete. Give them incentives for innovation through a challenge or competition.

Dedicated Innovation Time

Provide employees with dedicated time and resources to work on innovative projects. This can be in the form of “innovation hours” or allowing employees to spend a certain percentage of their workweek on self-directed innovation initiatives. Companies like Google and 3M are known for allowing their employees time to pursue creativity and innovation. At 3M it’s called the 15% time, which led to the Post It Note. And at Google it’s the 20% time, which led to the creation of Gmail.

Training and Skill Development

Offer training programs and workshops to enhance employees’ innovation skills, such as creative problem-solving, design thinking, or idea-generation techniques. By investing in their professional growth, you encourage a culture of innovation. My new Brainstreaming system teaches employees a new and better way to generate breakthrough ideas.

Idea Sharing Platforms

Implement platforms or systems where employees can share their ideas and collaborate with others. This can be an internal digital platform or an innovation management tool that enables idea generation, feedback, and collaboration across the organization.

Flexible Work Environment

Foster a work environment that promotes flexibility and autonomy. This can include flexible work hours, remote work options, and a culture that supports experimentation and risk-taking. When individuals have the freedom to explore and implement their ideas, innovation flourishes.

Intellectual Property Rights

Of course, as an inventor with some very valuable intellectual property, this is something I feel strongly about. Clarify and communicate the ownership and protection of intellectual property rights resulting from innovative ideas. Employees should feel secure in their ownership and be appropriately rewarded for their contributions, which can incentivize further innovation.

Innovation Grants or Funding

Provide financial support through innovation grants or funding opportunities for individuals or teams working on innovative projects. This can encourage employees to pursue their ideas and bring them to fruition.

Cross-Functional Collaboration

Encourage collaboration and knowledge-sharing across different departments or disciplines. This helps break down silos and allows diverse perspectives to come together, sparking new ideas and innovation.

Performance Evaluation

Include innovation as a key performance indicator in performance evaluations. Reward and recognize employees who demonstrate innovative thinking and successfully implement innovative projects. These are employees who will fuel growth in your company.

Create a culture of innovation

Remember, creating a culture of innovation requires a combination of these approaches and a supportive organizational environment that values and encourages experimentation, creativity, and continuous learning.

If you want to create a culture of innovation, you can’t just expect employees to come up with great ideas that are likely going to create a lot of extra work for them and their co-workers to implement — without offering them a share of the rewards. People don’t like working for free. Innovation needs incentives to work. So make some sort of reward structure and incentives for innovation a part of your plan.