11 Non-Traditional Ways to Reward Innovative Employees

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Sep 1, 2014

Where end-of-year bonuses once stood as the gold standard, today’s reward programs are more varied and reflect an organization’s unique culture and creativity.

From peer-to-peer rewards to gamification and front-row parking spots, the reward space is evolving with the speed of an Internet meme. Your own incentive program plays a key role in driving innovative behavior, so it must serve your business goals while offering an array of aspirational carrots.

4 approaches to a rewards program

As CEO of innovation-training firm futurethink, I’ve worked with the world’s leading organizations and the most effective reward programs I’ve seen are a blend of compensation, gifting, recognition, and perks. Top innovators combine monetary rewards with recognition, and individual with team rewards in order to achieve a balanced program.

Organizations like, Westin, and Honeywell have a clear understanding of their short- and long-term innovation goals, and have created reward programs that help them to meet their objectives.

As you design (or redesign) a plan that serves your goals, consider our four (4) approaches below. These are based on models used by leading innovators to ensure a steady flow of ideas from employees:

1. Compensation

This typically translates to bonuses, cash-for-ideas, or stock options, and today’s innovators continue to expand the possibilities within this category. When you need to motivate employees in the short-term, financial compensation offers an effective route.

  • Peer-to-peer rewards — At, employees award cash bonuses to other colleagues.
  • MVP rewards — Employees at biotechnology company Genentech are acknowledged for going over and above job responsibilities with a check ranging from $1,000 to $2,500. Even if this level of compensation isn’t feasible for your own organization, determine a range that is and build it into your incentive program.
  • Patented rewards — Samsung has financially rewarded employees who submit patent applications on its behalf, as well as team members who apply the new technologies to its products.

2. Gifting

Gifting doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive, but creative gifts must carry enough perceived value to incentivize employees. Gifting is ideal for re-enforcing exemplary behaviors in the short-term and fostering long-term loyalty.

  • Experiential rewardsWestin (part of Starwood Hotels) has been known for awarding an exotic, five-day trip to the employee with the quarter’s best idea. If vacation packages aren’t a reality for your business, consider awarding extra vacation days instead.
  • Prestige rewards — Managers within ad agency DDB Worldwide send bottles of premium champagne to employees who exceed expectations on an account or project.
  • Virtual rewards — The UK’s Department for Work and Pensions encourage ideas from employees through a gamification platform called “Idea Street.” Points are earned for submitting and further developing ideas. Employees can also invest their points into promising ideas and if these ideas are implemented, more points are earned. Within 18 months of its launch, Idea Street had approximately 4500 users and generated 1400 ideas — of which 63 moved into the implementation phase.

3. Recognition

Recognition enables you to publicly showcase employees who demonstrate the behavior and performance that you want to cultivate. For long-term goals, this approach is often more effective than financial compensation.

  • Failure reward Intuit hosts a company-wide award ceremony at which the “Failure Award” is bestowed on a team whose unsuccessful idea resulted in valuable learning. When plastics company W. L. Gore & Associates kills a failing project, they host a celebration with beer or champagne, just as they would if the project had succeeded.
  • VIP rewards — When launching its “Great Performers” program, Honeywell featured the portraits and stories of top employees on posters that are displayed prominently across its offices. Within your own company, consider adding a prominent recognition category to your intranet — or a front-row parking spot designated for the “Hero of the Month.”

4. Perks

Perks are rewards built into the overall work environment in order to attract and retain top talent, as well as increase long-term employee performance.

  • Brag-worthy rewards — The culture at Thrillist Media Group is centered around a work-hard-play-hard approach, and the company pays it forward with a dogs-welcome policy, sporting events, and beer on tap.
  • Concierge-style rewardsGenentech provides on-site dog sitting for employees, and services like haircuts and weekly car washes.
  • Future-changing rewards — In conjunction with Arizona State University, Starbucks offers a free online college education for its part and full-time employees. In your own business, consider a tuition reimbursement program that allows staff to seek continuing education courses related to their current or potential next assignment within the company.

You also need a strong communications plan

As you consider which incentives will be impactful for your organization, choose rewards that are in fair proportion to the scope of achievement. And when you can pinpoint individual efforts — a winning idea, for example — it’s important to reward individuals. For accomplishments that can’t be attributed to one person — say, meeting revenue goals on a particular innovation — consider rewarding entire teams and groups.

Ensure employee awareness about rewards and recognition for innovation by working with your PR and HR teams on a communication plan. Outline the expectations (what is being rewarded and for how long) and if necessary, clarify changes to the existing reward/incentive program. Keep teams motivated by bestowing rewards on a consistent basis.

Lastly, check your metrics regularly to determine if the plan is meeting your goals: Are more innovative ideas being submitted? Has your market share on innovations increased? Have deadlines and budgets stayed on track? Note which incentives are accomplishing your short- and long-term goals, and fine-tune your program accordingly.

By taking a balanced approach to rewards and recognition, you’ll have the right type of carrots to measurably engage your employees in innovation.

For even more reward ideas, email us at and ask for futurethink’s 23 Nontraditional Ways to Incentivize Innovation.