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Google's magic motivation juice?

Robert Brand
Robert Brands is the founder of Innovation Coach, and the author of Robert's Rules of Innovation: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival

What moves employees to invest more emotional spirit into their jobs -- and their organizations? Is it possible for leaders to "motivate" innovation? Do bigger monetary rewards drive people to ratchet up their output?

These are hotly debated questions that have kept industrial psychologists, motivational speakers and perplexed CEOs busy for years. The debate recently was turned up a notch with the release of author Dan Pink's new book, Drive, where he writes about the incentives that motivate individuals and teams to do more.

Pink uses scientific research to dispel the myth that monetary reward motivates best. According to a November 2009 McKinsey Quarterly report on how leaders were using non-financial incentives to motivate and reward employees, for example, the three key motivators were praise from immediate managers; attention from leadership, often in the form of one-on-one conversations; and the opportunity to lead a project or task force.

Among such non-monetary incentives, Pink highlights the pursuit of mastery, purpose and autonomy. To my eye, Pink believes open, creative time, where employees are given a percentage of their work week to explore new ideas or products worth developing can be a strong motivator. Software developer Atlassian, for example, was inspired by Google to give select employees a full "FedEx" day each week, during which programmers can brainstorm and "deliver" something new overnight.

On the face of it, such chunks of creative time are a great source of motivation. But I have some hesitations. One problem with loosely-defined "creative time" is that it often lacks accountability.

Employees unleashed with their brain's right hemisphere and a blank sheet or screen may have autonomy to pursue "The Next Big Thing," but how can their manager or the company ensure their pursuits ultimately are in the best interests of the company's mission and values? To the point, how can the company ensure free time is well-spent and ultimately delivers bottom-line ROI, while keeping employees motivated?

Unstructured ideation must be closely aligned not only with the company's mission or values but also with a mutually agreed-upon problem that needs solving. In other words, those with free time must know what, generally speaking, they are striving for.

When I recently started a discussion on this topic via LinkedIn, one manager responded by saying said he too sometimes copies the Google model of creative-time for employees, but that part of the challenge is getting employees to share their discoveries. Sometimes, he wrote, employees can "hold the best ideas for themselves," not believing their company is the best place to bring the new idea to life.

A manager with a Dutch company said she has her teams brainstorm freely on Thursday afternoons but it's not "free time," a la Google, she wrote. It's a collaborative experience spent sketching, talking about trends, and trying to build some mockups or develop ideas. Success can be fleeting, she wrote, "especially because we sometimes couldn't agree about what to do during this afternoon."

Sometimes, the four hours seemed like wasted time. Other times, the free-form sessions resulted in vital discoveries. "Some of our patents came through in these afternoons," she wrote. The fact that the free time was available "created an innovative environment.

Combining Pink's ideas about the "renaissance of self-direction" with these real-world examples results in a few key takeways about the use of free time to motivate employees and push innovation.

First, ideation works best with a structured approach. It can be "free time," but participants given this freedom must have priorities and work with company goals and mission in mind.

Second, free timers must be held accountable. Otherwise, it can be a shotgun blast with few results.

Finally, the DNA must be ingrained in the individual. Not all people have the constitution for such freedom. Choose wisely.

Anyone who appreciates the solutions a company like Google provides knows the value of free time. Success from such liberty, though, only comes when such freedom is countered by accountability. Packaged and delivered as such, the results can be rewarding indeed.

By Robert Brands

 |  April 19, 2010; 1:42 PM ET |  Category:  Goal Setting Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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