The Real Thing Holding You Back From Innovation

How to get what you need from your company: Lead with your actions and reward good behavior.

The Real Thing Holding You Back From Innovation
[Image: Flickr user Steven Leonti]

To get what you want, you have to do more than ask.


I was standing at the supermarket the other day watching a mother struggling with a young child who kept asking for her mother to buy her something and thinking back to my own vain attempts to keep my kids from pestering me for treats every time we went to the store. I told them repeatedly to stop asking me for things, but still they persisted. Why didn’t they listen?

The fundamental problem is that we communicate what we want from others in three broad ways–through what we say, what we do, and what we reward. And, unfortunately, telling people what you want is the least effective mode of communication.

Let’s return to that poor mother for a second. She requests that her child stop asking for a treat several times. So, her child learns that when you don’t get what you want the first time, you have to keep asking. Chances are, the mom has given in to the onslaught of requests at least once in the past, and so the child also knows she will be rewarded for her persistence. Ultimately, what you do and more importantly what you reward drives other people’s behavior.

The same thing happens frequently in the workplace.

Not long ago, I spoke to a group of CIOs from large companies on the topic of innovation. They attended the meeting where I spoke, because their firms were committed to promoting innovation within their teams. All of them were clear that they spoke often about the importance of innovation. Yet, there was a lot of frustration among these executives that their teams were not as agile as they could be.

Digging deeper, though, it became clear that–despite their pleas for more innovation–many of the organizations were not leading with their actions, and they were not rewarding innovative behavior.


In particular, much of the focus at these organizations was on incremental changes to existing processes rather than to fundamental shifts in the information environments. Consequently, most employees assumed that their main goal was to support the existing programs rather than to create new initiatives.

More importantly, most of the people who were getting promoted were those who had managed existing programs successfully. There were very few examples of recent promotions of individuals who had generated significant new innovations. Thus, the companies were not sending a clear message that innovation would be rewarded.

More generally, it is crucial to do a periodic review of the ways you are communicating your desires to the rest of the people you work with. If you do not successfully align what you do and what you reward with what you say that you want, then you are unlikely to get people to do what you tell them you want them to do. In those instances, you need to work to make your actions and rewards more consistent with your rhetoric.

As frustrating as it can be to have people do something different from what you tell them, it can have an even bigger negative effect on your ability to lead. As people realize that what you tell them is not a good predictor of what they really ought to be doing, they stop listening. Then, you have to put in a lot of effort to reestablish trust.