The Link Between Motivation and Innovation

In the early days of the war in Afghanistan the U.S. Army’s top leadership recently did a very smart thing:

They listened to one of their enlisted men.

After returning from the war in Afghanistan, Master Sergeant Rudy Romero sent a long, insightful email to a former commanding officer about the suitability of the equipment that the Army provides to GIs. The recipient forwarded the message to a few colleagues who forwarded it to a few more until, ultimately, it reached the Army’s most senior enlisted soldier and the Army Chief of Staff. They took Romero’s insights seriously and, as a result, the Army made numerous changes to equipment design and procurement.

Every government agency (and every large organization for that matter) has a number of front-line employees, like Romero, who have a gift for identifying better ways of doing things. Just about everyone else has good ideas from time to time as well. The question is, does management encourage everyone to contribute their ideas and then implement the best ones?

Employees in most organizations would like to feel that their ideas can make a difference in their workplace. For many people, in fact, there are few things more motivating than seeing–and assisting with–the successful implementation of an idea they suggested. The scarcity of this motivational force may be one of the biggest reasons why so many government employees feel that they are powerless and unable to change “the system.”

All too often, supervisors overlook the possibility that their employees may be an untapped gold mine of good ideas. Sometimes this may be out of hubris, with the manager feeling that he/she knows best. In other cases, managers may ignore line employees’ ideas out of insecurity, feeling threatened by subordinates who prove to be highly competent and creative.

No one has a monopoly on good ideas, however. Managers who are aggressive about eliciting the ideas of their staff find that getting everyone involved in the effort to improve the operation has an incredible multiplier effect on the rapidity of the change process and the commitment of employees to those changes. To do this, managers need to foster a climate of openness that gets employees engaged in the process of innovation and organizational renewal.

This article outlines five practices which, implemented together, represent an integrated approach to innovation and employee motivation that has proven to be very effective in the government context.

1. Get to Know Every Employee
It is virtually impossible for a mid-level manager to motivate his/her employees without getting to know them. Whenever starting a new job, all managers should make a point of having a one-on-one meeting with each member of their staff. Managers who do not know what makes each employee tick will find it very difficult to motivate them. Similarly, if the manager does not know an employee’s strengths, he will be unlikely to find the right role for them. These one-on-one sessions are a great opportunity to encourage employees to contribute their ideas.

2. Challenge them to Improve the Operation
One way for managers to make it clear that they welcome input and suggestions is to give each employee a clear mandate in their work requirements to take a hard look at the whole operation and make recommendations for improvements. My first boss in the Foreign Service did this for me and it had a huge impact on my development as a leader. This practice sets down a marker that all employees are expected to contribute their ideas. It is equally important to comment on each employee’s efforts in this area at evaluation time.

3. “Customer for a Day”
Another mechanism manager can use to elicit suggestions is to have each employee be “Customer for a Day.” Most offices have customers of some sort, whether they be internal or external, and it can be quite enlightening to look at the operation from the client’s point of view. The most engaged and creative employees (i.e. the “Master Sergeant Romeros” of the operation) will probably identify a long list of things that can be improved to make the customer’s experience more comfortable, transparent and efficient. At a minimum, the experience will sensitize employees to any hardships experienced by the customer. (Note: Employees would not really be “Customer” for the whole day. But they should be given sufficient time to go all the way through the process, and then to write up their impressions and suggestions for the supervisor.)

4. Reward Great Ideas
It is also important to find a way to reward or recognize employees whose suggestions help improve the operation. One option is to establish a Great Idea Award and give the recipient a customized certificate. Other options could be to give them a logo item, a cash award or even a day off (depending both on what the parent agency permits and what the employee values most). Managers at agencies that offer cash awards to employees who make money-saving suggestions should find out the procedures and use that mechanism whenever appropriate.

5. Don’t Forget the Implementation
A crucial part of this whole equation is the actual implementation of the great ideas generated by employees. While not all ideas are ready for prime time, without follow-through on the good ones the organization simply ends up with a long list of unused suggestions-and a lot of frustrated employees. To the extent possible, managers should put the person who suggested a great idea in charge of the actual implementation. The initiator of an innovative idea usually has a sense of ownership and is highly motivated to see their suggestion put into effect. Those managers who try to take the lead on all new initiatives will find themselves overworked and unable to accomplish everything they would like. By delegating the implementation, the managers can give their employees a terrific developmental opportunity, with the manager just needing to provide guidance and support.

These are just a few suggested methods for encouraging employees to contribute their ideas for improving their organization. Implemented on their own, each of these practices would have limited impact. The key is to use a multifaceted approach that continually reinforces the fact that employees’ ideas are welcome, valued, and rewarded. It would be awesome to see how much an organization’s effectiveness could be improved if all managers were to systematically seek out and implement these kinds of suggestions from front-line employees.

(Note: I originally published this on

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Sam Allgood

Some good thoughts, Don. I particularly like the last point as the person suggesting the change will have the clearest vision of what the change actually looks like, so key elements don’t get lost in translation.


I’m a big fan of the Customer for a Day example. I went through this experience in my last job and was immensely valuable both in terms of becoming more passionate for the customer. But also thinking of ways to cut steps and improve the process. Plus…it gave the job a greater sense of purpose.

Brock Webb

Excellent post! Something almost seemly contraindicated to an organization is Rewarding Failure. We talk about rewarding risk, but it seems more like we reward “successful risk” and a culture of punishing failure (unsuccessful risk). Also, in this aspect, great bureaucracies have been created to marginally stumble forward in small conservative increments and doesn’t allow natural market corrections to occur. Example: it seems like getting 10/10 software programs completed is a success when in fact, only one of those ten were really what was useful in the end. Instead of letting 9/10 “fail” (because that would have been a waste of tax payer dollars) we use the system to complete programs, reward individuals for their success, and spend 100x more than necessary in the end. As we lead into Gov 2.0, we need to understand that the normal mode of the marketplace is to “fail early and often.” It seems strange that we need to invest in failure, but how else are we to discover what works in a time frame that matters?

Sharone Woodruff

This is a great article and I will use the ideas to help my co-workers motivate and innovate their ideas. One excellent point that is so common but overlooked in the digital age is know every employee. One thing I challenge myself and others to do is speak your dreams. I my not can help you someone I know my be able. This is so true with innovation. You may have all the parts but one and thru seven degrees separation it comes to fruition. Keep up the motivation and innovation and we continue in our existence.