How Can We Motivate Innovative People?

How do we encourage people to try out their new ideas? One of the big problems we face in managing innovation is figuring out a way to help the people we work with to be more creative. In this fantastic talk, Dan Pink outlines some of the key points from his new book Drive:

The main point is that command and control management, using carrots and sticks, works ok when we are trying to manage routine jobs. However, when the jobs we are managing require any type of creativity, this style of management actually inhibits performance! If we’re trying to motivate innovation, Pink argues that the three things people need are autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose.

This is what he says it means for managing innovation:

I would’ve done it this way three years ago, before this research: Give ’em a frickin’ innovation bonus. ‘Here’s $2500 if you do something cool.’ But they’re not doing this at all – they’re essentially saying ‘You probably want to do something interesting – let me just get out of your way.’

The three factors of autonomy, mastery and sense of purpose are interesting. If we take these seriously, it leads to important implications for managing innovation:

  • Managers need to give up control: people respond strongly to having control of what they do, and having some choice in the projects on which they work. To provide this autonomy, you can’t tell people what to do. Managing isn’t directing – it’s giving people the space they need to execute their interesting ideas. Bob Sutton makes this same point:

    My job is to serve as a human shield, to protect my people from external intrusions, distractions, and idiocy of every stripe — and to avoid imposing my own idiocy on them as well.

  • To get good outcomes from this autonomy, we also need mastery. Innovation is about making new connections, but to do this well, we need deep knowledge. Innovation isn’t about inspiration. Innovation is about working hard. Sure, making novel connections is what it’s all about – but you can’t do that if you haven’t done the hard work to know what the connections mean. Here’s Gordon Gould, one of the people that invented the laser, talking about the moment of inspiration:

    In the middle of one Saturday night… the whole thing suddenly popped into my head and I saw how to build the laser… But that flash of insight required the 20 years of work I had done in physics and optics to put all of the bricks of that invention in there.

  • But doesn’t all this autonomy lead to chaos? It can – that’s we we need purpose, to provide some guidance to the autonomous work. This is where Mark Earls’ concept of the Purpose-Idea is critical. Here is how Hugh MacLeod summarises it:

    What’s far more interesting, Mark says, is the reason we all get out of bed in the morning. The thing that drives us as individuals, as a company. Ask yourself, what is our company for? Is all our professional life about just selling aluminum widgets for 16.7% margin, or is there some sort of higher meaning involved? What are we trying to change? To improve upon? To disrupt?

    Why are we here?

    Mark then goes on to say how much more fun, interesting and profitable it is for a company when what it does has a sense of shared purpose, an idea it can believe in. This is the “P.I.”

    It’s the sense of purpose that pulls people together. Leadership is not telling people what to do, it’s inspiring them to do great stuff

Drive is not your typical business book where a bunch of appealing anecdotes are trotted out and treated like data. As you can tell from his talks, Pink is certainly entertaining, but his books are always grounded in research. And in this case, the research results are pretty clear: if we are trying to motivate innovative people, don’t use carrots and sticks – use autonomy, mastery and purpose instead.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

16 thoughts on “How Can We Motivate Innovative People?

  1. Dear Sir/Madam,

    Your whole theory regarding any free work especially related to Apache and other Open Source communities is only an illusion. Sometimes managers, sociologists, and other people related to human disciplines are not acquainted with real laws of industrial economics. However, some leading people are conscious yet they do not want to reveal the receipt.

    Best regards,
    Nikola Radakovic

  2. How do you mean that it’s an illusion Nikola?

    Also, on your company’s website, in the three pictures that cycle through towards the top, one of them has ‘business’ spelled ‘bussines’ – you might want to get that fixed.

  3. You should bill him/her for that consulting advice there Tim. I mean, that’d be in line with the real laws of industrial economics…


    Dwight Towers

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