Why do people participate in idea schemes?

We think about and talk to business leaders all day, every day about why they should engage their workforce in innovation because, to be blunt, they’re the people who hire us and pay our bills. Consequently we spend much less time thinking about WHY their staff will (or won’t) participate.
We’d love to think that people share ideas out of altruism and some will, but it is naive to assume that this will fuel interest in ideas and innovation over the long term. The reality is that different people will see different motivations.
I have worked with a leading Children’s Charity and their motivation – their call to action was simple, “to find ideas for new fundraising initiatives to help save children’s lives”. Who couldn’t buy into this? It’s a powerful motivation. Let’s compare that to, for instance, a bank. If the perceived motivation behind the scheme is that the “bosses want to make more money ” (which is a perfectly reasonable motivation) then assuming participation will ‘just happen’ certainly is naive because there is a very clear mismatch between the organization’s and the participant’s motivations. If the motivation is financial, then you can fix the alignment issue really easily by offering a reward or prize. Of the hundreds of organizations that I have spoken to over the last 8 years, in reality ‘saving / making more money’ is rarely the sole or even principle motivation, but remember, perception is reality. If the staff perceive it, then it is and if they think that’s it’s unfair, they won’t participate.

I could doubtless write a full article or white paper on this subject, but in the meantime, here are my thoughts. I’d welcome your ideas and experiences.

Motivations as seen from the viewpoint of the employee

(ranked, as best as I can with the common / powerful at the top)

– I want a share of the prizes on offer (the fact that this is the first one is perhaps the best reason for offering / not offering a financial incentive)
– I want recognition from my bosses for doing something extra-curricular, imaginative and entrepreneurial
– I want recognition from my peers that I am creative and imaginative
– I believe in the initiative and want to participate because I believe it can benefit me and my colleagues
– I believe in the initiative and want to participate because if it benefits the organization, it will indirectly benefit me
– Sharing and discussing ideas is fun and energizing
– I want someone to solve a problem that I see in my day to day work and this might be a way of getting it heard (because I told my boss and they ignored it)
– I am being told to participate by my bosses!

What does this tell you if you run or are considering launching an innovation scheme to engage your staff?

– Failing to consider (or under estimate) the motivations of staff is a big mistake
– Recognition is a strong motivation so it is essential that you figure out how you will recognize their efforts (regardless of whether you are going to offer prizes for participation). Some tools like TalkFreely (www.talkfreely.com) include gamification features which record participation across the board rather than just ideas
– The motivation to improve the organization is also a strong motivation. Again, you need to figure out to make sure there is a robust process to make sure those ideas are implemented in order to sustain the motivation
– Expecting them to participate because they are being told to is the worst motivation. At best you will get a load of rubbish ideas and at worst you will get their frustrations and issues disguised as ideas