The Curious Capitalist blog over at TIME has a couple of interesting posts (see here and here) on social versus economic norms. The posts, by Barbara Kiviat, are in response to a recent Wall Street Journal article that discusses an ongoing experiment in some U.S. schools that rewards students, with cash, for performing well on Advanced Placement courses during high school.
While the WSJ article and Kiviat’s posts are worth a read if you have some time—the discussion of “norms” is what really sparked my interest because of the implications norms have on innovation. Basically, social norms have been shown to be more effective at eliciting certain types of behavior than economic norms. While financial and other economic incentives have their place in the corporate world, innovation may fare better (in the long term, at least) if the incentive to innovate is a “social” one.
This is something we’ve seen across the board in our research of innovative organizations. The best innovators are those organizations in which innovation is expected—where innovation is part of the way things work. My favorite example of this type of organization is probably Google. A few months back, I wrote about innovation at Google, and talked about their internal idea-management system as a really great way to incent innovation. Google Ideas, as the system is known, sits on the company’s global intranet, and is a public repository of all active ideas from Google’s employees. Each idea submission has the submitter’s name and contact information, as well as a discussion-board type mechanism through which other employees can comment on and build out various submissions. Since the system is public, and since every idea submission is tied to a particular employees’ internal profile page, there’s a strong social motivation to participate—either by submitting original ideas or by adding value to the existing body of ideas. If you don’t participate, everyone knows about it, and you appear to your peers as unimaginative and not-so-innovative, which is probably Google’s equivalent of a scarlet letter.
The point is that Google does innovation by making it a social norm. Googlers certainly have some strong financial incentives and rewards in place, but I would argue that the more compelling motivator is the fact that everyone else is doing it.
In the above-mentioned blog posts, Kiviat cites a study in which a hotel chain used different messaging to see what would elicit a better response from guests in their towel reuse.
Some cards read “Help Save the Environment” and others read “Join Your Fellow Guests in Helping to Save the Environment.” Both provided information on how resources are preserved when guests re-use towels. Room attendants recorded reuse rates. Cards that focused on the level of participation of other guests, which essentially conveyed that it is normal to participate, increased the percentage of participation from 35.1 percent to 44.1 percent.
In a second study, the researchers were able to boost towel re-use even further by placing a sign in the room that said 75 percent of guests in that specific room re-used their towels.
Those are some pretty compelling findings, no? Imagine if all your employees were subtly persuaded to innovate through similar messaging. The last Chief Innovation Officer ushered twelve major launches to market in just one year. Or: The average analyst submits 36 ideas to our idea management system annually. If you tell people what the norm is (or what the expectation is), they’ll feel less like they’re being forced to change the way they behave, and more like they’re being forced to conform. Granted, conformity isn’t necessarily something most people strive toward, but it’s probably less off-putting than that other c-word… change.
Just a thought.