The No. 1 Thing That Keeps Your Best Employees Motivated?

It's Not What You Think

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Most of my executive clients strive to deliver compelling incentive packages for their most innovative employees–to keep them engaged and motivated. This isn’t surprising. According to research from Innovation Leader, 65 percent of companies say that their number one barrier to getting innovation is the lack of innovative behavior due to a risk-avoidant culture.

Sure, money is important to most people. But when it comes to incentives for “intrapreneurs”–people employed inside of companies–money isn’t the biggest carrot for promoting innovation.

Salary is a threshold benefit–once met, making much more of it doesn’t materially increase motivation.

It doesn’t mean that salary means nothing. Most employees are highly aware of their individual value. Underpaid employees can feel demoralized and disconnected. Valuable employees must be paid what they’re worth or they risk leaving for “better” opportunities. But once that threshold is met, perpetually adding financial carrots won’t necessarily increase motivation to go the extra mile and innovate.

Even bonuses only motivate short term. Long term, the most innovative employees want to be self-directed, do work they believe in and grow as people.

What employees really want is time–control of it and the opportunity to use it for creative endeavors. That’s why Google gives its engineers 20 percent time to innovate on whatever projects strike their fancy. 3M does the same, giving people 15 percent of their work week to explore new opportunities.

The software company Intuit doles out awards each year to individuals and teams that produce the biggest innovations. The reward isn’t money–it’s three months of free time to work on whatever pet project might deliver the next big idea.

There are deeper reasons for why time is the number one ingredient for getting more innovation. Time affords people autonomy, a sense of purpose, and personal learning opportunities–all fundamental ingredients of innovation.

I’ve heard many executives lament that their organizations just aren’t set up to give people free time to innovate. It’s just not realistic given their cultures. My response? Innovation requires time. That’s the reality. But if you can’t give people time, can you do things that inspire people to create time for themselves?

Here are three things that can motivate people to find time to innovate without formally creating a free-time policy:

1. Set-up Merit Based Metrics

Helicopter managers are a thing of the past. Employees with more autonomy are happier and more productive. Being able to control your own schedule is incredibly empowering and makes us feel respected. This can easily translate into greater productivity and process improvements (aka, innovation).

Humans, innately, are problem-solvers and goal-seekers. Set clear goals, get out of the way, and let your employees achieve them. You also may be surprised how creative employees can become, when given broad, simple goals. In his book Drive, Dan Pink found that many of the most innovative ideas came from employees that had the least strict work schedules.

2. Help People Discover Purpose

The parable of the NASA janitor is unforgettable. John F. Kennedy, while touring NASA, walked up to a janitor with a mop in his hands. Greeting him, JFK asked, “What is it you do here?” The janitor responded, without hesitation, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

Decades later, this sentiment still rings true. Teams, families and communities–we all seek to be part of something greater than ourselves. Employees who feel a deeper purpose around the value they’re delivering for internal or external customers will often find time to go the extra mile.

3. Fuel Fast Cycle Learning

Fast learning is the key to innovation. That’s why concepts like rapid iteration, prototyping, and lean startups are all the rage. By promoting the importance of fast cycle-time learning, leaders can help create a culture that supports behaviors focused on trial-and-error. When people know their organization values and recognizes learning, they’re more apt to try things that result in learning. No more playing it safe. Learning is about taking initiative and risk.

The reality is that time is the fuel that powers new ideas and experimentation. Whether you give people time or help them find it, liberating people from daily fire-fighting is a strategic leadership imperative–if you want innovation.

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