Buzzword Alert: Incentivization is the New Innovation

Simple shifts in strategy and thinking can help leaders improve employee engagement.

As a futurist, I attend numerous conferences on how to create positive change and accelerate business growth. Government executives might be surprised to learn that the No. 1 buzzword at these events is no longer innovation. Rather, with studies consistently showing that end-users (i.e. ordinary citizens) are today’s best source of ideas, and frontline workers (those closest to them) are typically the most informed audience in any organization, the big buzzword these days is actually incentivization—how to motivate workers to speak up, share insights, and rapidly transform ideas into action. 

Finding ways to boost employee engagement doesn’t have to be difficult. You can radically increase your ability to lead and succeed just by making a few simple adjustments to your leadership and workforce development strategies. Such adjustments can be as powerful as breakthrough innovations in driving positive results. That’s because minor tweaks are more frequently implemented and the benefits compound over time. 

A couple of examples of this phenomenon from the corporate world are instructive:

  • When Coca-Cola realized young adults in Australia were drinking less soda and spending more time online than with friends, the company didn’t take out millions of dollars worth of radio or TV advertising or create crazy new flavors of Coke. Instead, it printed the 150 most popular Australian names for boys and girls on Coke bottles it was already manufacturing and, through social media, invited citizens to share them. Within 3 months, it had blanketed the nation and increased consumption of its beverages among young adults by double digits. 
  • Among efforts to encourage safer driving among customers, Liberty Mutual discovered one of its most popular solutions wasn’t a training course or public awareness campaign. It was a downloadable app called Highway Hero that awards discounts to users for good driver behavior. 

Create the Right Culture

While simple strategy shifts alone can create positive change, it also helps to provide people with inviting forums where they feel comfortable speaking up. One large government agency we work with has found ways to fast-track learning and growth by creating positions for young professionals on its internal committees and holding regular breakfast meetings where team leaders share ideas and collaborate in casual settings. 

In a similar vein, a popular non-profit association offers online matchmaking tools to members that allow them to find researchers with similar interests in different fields. 

Finding ways to win with innovation isn’t just about implementing a variety of programs and platforms that allow for greater teamwork and communication. It’s also about offering staff ways to transform ideas into action, and creating more opportunities that allow them to consistently speak up, take ownership of challenges, and make necessary shifts in strategy.

As you think about how to fuel this transformation in your agency, it may help to consider which factors most effectively drive employees to positively engage with your organization. Contrary to popular belief, the fastest way to encourage people to speak up and participate seldom to just throw money at the problem. Because not only are today’s workers—especially younger generations—more motivated by opportunities to learn and grow than a paycheck, they’re also increasingly drawn to organizations that champion innovation and give employees an opportunity to make an impact.

Millennials—the cohort born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s—have surpassed Baby Boomers as the single largest generation in America, and are now the single largest generation in the workforce. So if you want to better engage and inspire them, bigger paychecks alone won’t do it. Instead, they’re going to demand opportunities to boost their skills and see how their contributions are making a difference. 

It’s important to be aware that most of tomorrow’s workforce, regardless of their age or generational cohort, won’t measure success in terms of money alone, but rather their ability to accomplish goals and make a meaningful impact on the organization.

So if you’re looking to empower tomorrow’s leaders to succeed, you won’t just need to offer them more leadership opportunities and more favorable salary and benefits packages. You’ll also want to create a more welcoming and supportive environment that emphasizes professional growth and development. Enabling and inspiring government workers to do great things can be easier and more cost-effective than you think when you actively work with top performers—not just have them work for you.

Scott Steinberg is the bestselling author of Lead with Your Heart, Make Change Work for You: 10 Ways to Future-Proof Yourself, Fearlessly Innovate, and Succeed Despite Uncertainty, and Millennial Marketing: Bridging the Generation Gap. His website is