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Want Innovation? Try Bribery

Innovation is critical to the success of modern businesses. But just because you find it of the utmost importance doesn't mean your employees will.

MIT Sloan School research fellow Michael Schrage had some recent advice to employees who wanted to advance innovation: bribe colleagues to help. Schrage specifically meant passing some R&D budget money to sales and marketing for help in getting in front of customers:

"If you're working on a cool new material or product prototype, you've got to ask yourself: Do you get a better return from making it "better"? Or would you learn more and get more from being exposed to the right kind of customer? No matter how excited you may be about your pet innovation's potential, if you don't have a budget to (help) put your money where your mouth is, how do you get internal partners to go along?"

Innovation as the image of the lone genius toiling away in a garage has long been a myth. Even Edison hired a team of inventors and scientists — and his first invention, a vote recorder for use by legislatures, went nowhere. Why? It sped the voting process, which is exactly what elected officials, who needed time to gain support for their positions, didn't want. In other words, Edison could have used some marketing collaboration.

Although Schrage was talking about larger corporations and their elaborate sets of fiefdoms, there is a principle here that applies to young companies. Everyone has self interests as well as duties within the business. To get the full cooperation and help from employees, you have to satisfy both the self interest and the duties. If not, they will find it difficult to participate in your innovation process, no matter how much you want them to ... or tell them to.

You don't have to bribe with money.

On the personal side, money is important, but it's generally not the best motivator in business. Better you provide recognition, room for people to significantly add to innovation, informal praise for work well done, and a chance to make a difference. You want creativity, so use some in structuring your bribes. Don't create the impression that you think employees can be bought.

When leaders are focused on motivating employees, they forget that they can demotivate them at the same time. It's like the classic compensation problem: A company wants result A, but provides compensation that drives employees to do B. Only, in this case, you potentially risk making it far too difficult for employees to do their regular work.

People want to feel that they are getting their jobs done well — that they're doing their duty. So carefully consider what you've already asked employees to do before pulling them into an innovation process. Sure, everyone is stretched and in a younger company, working harder is a replacement for resources you don't have. But be sure that everyone has the time to do their regular jobs. Otherwise, you risk your organization dropping the ball on basic operations, resulting in problems and frustrated employees who won't be able to bring their best to a new venture.

Last updated: Apr 5, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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