A bit of coloured ribbon

If you’re a small business trying to stay ahead in your field with innovation, take your cue from the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) of two hundred years ago.

I came across a paper from Harvard Business School, looking at ways to foster creativity in the workplace. One of the things you can do is to offer prizes for original thinking, according to professor Josh Lerner.

He gives the example of the RASE in the 19th century. They wanted to improve agriculture in the country and decided to give prizes for innovative ideas for equipment and farming techniques. The RASE set up dozens of awards, and over the course of a century, says Lerner, this led to real innovation (judging by the number of patents granted) and a flurry of creative activity (a rise in submissions).

What is more interesting, however, was that it didn’t matter whether the prize was money, or if there was no cash involved at all, simply a medal. The competition was just as intense.

However, another academic believes it’s motivation not rewards, that drives innovation. Professor Teresa M. Amabile asked 200 ‘knowledge workers’ to keep a journal of their ‘successes and frustrations at work’ for three years.

After analysing 12,000 entries she came to the conclusion that it ‘wasn’t recognition or awards that most ignited employees and freed up their creative juices’. They felt energised by the small, everyday victories that gave them momentum to achieve a goal, and it was this boost that spurred their creativity.

Which do you think is more effective, rewards or motivation? Perhaps a perfect example of both is from a quote attributed to Napoleon: “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon.”


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