How To Innovate Your Recognition Programs The Right Way

It is one thing to make quality or continuous improvements to your recognition and reward programs. But what about innovating them?

Some of you have probably heard of the design and consulting firm, IDEO, based in the U.S., and with offices in England, Germany, Japan, and China. They founded IDEO in Palo Alto, California, in 1991. They have over 700 staff and they use a design thinking approach to design products, services, environments, and digital experiences. 

You could do this on your own or collaborate with your recognition program provider. Look at IDEO’s design process below and consider how you might apply it to your recognition programs. 

Five Phased Process 

IDEO has a five-phased process model for designing new ways of doing things and designing new products. We’ll apply them to recognition and reward program innovation.

1. Discovery.

2. Interpretation.

3. Ideation.

4. Experimentation.

5. Evolution. 

These steps use divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is the expansive, creative, and imaginative exploration of all plausible ideas to address a situation. Convergent thinking is the logical minded and the narrowing down approach to finding a single well-defined solution to a problem or situation. 

Keep in mind that you and your colleagues can become change agents to innovate your recognition and reward programs. 

Phase 1: Discovery. 

I have a challenge. How do I approach it?

Step 1.1 Understand the Challenge 

This is where interested individuals and teams start identifying existing problems with employee recognition practices and programs. They need to articulate their understanding of recognition program tasks and each challenge.

You might start off with a brainstorming workshop to address concerns about employee recognition. Imagine recognition and reward programs 30-years into the future. Think about the experiences of employees and managers. What skills will employees and managers need then? 

Include visits to outside organizations outside of your industry to cross-pollinate ideas on the same topic. 

In the end, you want to define one or a few challenges that the group wants to tackle as an innovation project. Review the challenge with everyone and each of you share what you already know about it. Invite team members who are interest in taking on the challenge and start making a plan.

Step 1.2 Prepare Research 

Nowyour team must conduct information gathering. Brainstorm divergent ideas together and seek inspiration to address the selected recognition challenges. Think about where each person might find inspiration.

Talk to people inside and outside of your organization. Read and review and visit people completely removed from your industry and service to get fresh perspectives.

Step 1.3 Gather Inspiration 

After you have everyone’s input with gathered information, it’s time for team members to get creative. Give everyone time to allow the subconscious mind to reflect and work on the issue with the thoughts and ideas presented. It can be a combination of individual and team generated reflection and note taking.

And you might need to consult individuals from outside of your organization for their input. Not all the great ideas originate in-house

Phase 2: Interpretation 

I learned something. How do I interpret it?

Step 2.1 Tell Stories.

You don’t just need data, facts and information. It’s important to capture the experiences of employees and leaders in your group with the identified challenge. This is where team members share their own stories with the recognition issue or problem. Or they might tell the stories they have heard from other people. You need definitive and accurate details of what is going on.

John Kotter, emeritus leadership professor from Harvard Business School, once said, “People change what they do less because they are given an analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.”

Stories tell the truth. 

Step 2.2 Search for Meaning.

Collectively, your recognition innovation team must interpret the data and information you have gathered.

Group similar data and information together for easy reference to the same themes. Categorize these groups and give them a title to identify them and refer to. You can create statement that summarize the findings and their impact on your recognition programs.

As a team you should discuss what you have gathered and see what excites everyone. Explore externally what you have gathered with people outside of your team to get unbiased reactions.

Be prepared to let go of stories that now seem irrelevant and hold on to the more pertinent information.

Step 2.3 Frame Opportunities.

The goal for your team of innovators is to identify possible topics and ideas. Look at the problems and reframe them into a possibility thinking format by prefacing suggestions with “how might we…” The key is to keep things simple and optimistic. This reframing allows you to be broad enough for things you don’t know yet and narrow enough to allow you to focus. 

  • How might we get more senior leaders involved in recognizing our staff throughout the organization?
  • How might we give more meaningful and effective recognition that resonates with employees than we are right now?
  • How might we get higher participation levels by using our online recognition programs from all levels of employees? 

Phase 3: Ideation 

I see an opportunity. What do I create? 

Step 3.1 Generate Ideas. 

I have always enjoyed using Dr. Edward de Bono’s lateral thinking techniques and creativity tools like the Six Thinking Hats. 

For example, the Six Thinking Hats technique has you looking at a problem from six different points of view. This way, you generate a range of perspectives and ideas. It also allows each team member to consider each perspective without criticism. This process and others like it give you a rich collection of ideas and a process to decide your next steps. 

Step 3.2 Refine Ideas. 

Initial brainstorm ideas might elect a small team to work with a recognition program vendor or with your IT team.

It’s time to do a reality check on your ideas. Identify the core purpose of your idea and make sure it resonates with everyone. List off the constraints against the idea so you can collectively address them one by one.

Go through another brainstorm exercise base on what you have narrowed down to. Make time to also brainstorm ideas for addressing the different constraints.

Things could change for your ideas based on the notes you now have. Remember to archive those points that are too difficult to work on. You might always pull them out at a later time.

Phase 4: Experimentation 

I have an idea. How do I build it? 

Step 4.1 Make Prototypes.

Prototype ideas may not always be some physical invention. They might be a new way of doing things. It could incorporate the organization’s recognition strategy into the leadership development curriculum. An idea of have a video-recording booth set up to capture stories of employees who have received recognition and how it made them feel. Set up smiley face or multiple-choice feedback kiosks in high-traffic areas to capture employee perceptions of employee recognition and other engagement areas. 

Step 4.2 Get Feedback. 

Why not pilot some of these brainstormed ideas and see what unfolds? You might develop some short-term and long-term plans for integrating your recognition concepts and trying them out for size. These ideas may have to be built out and experimented with. You have innovated some approaches and programs and now it is time for feedback. The information and insights you glean will help to tweak things you might not have thought about as a team.

Phase 5: Evolution 

I tried something new. How do I evolve it? 

Step 5.1 Track Learnings. 

It is with the planning and execution of your innovative ideas that you will get to see how successful you are. Your recognition projects could begin an entire line of communication initiatives to promote recognition knowledge and skills. You could dedicate time in your leadership forum meetings to discuss and support one another in giving more effective recognition to one another.

People need to conduct reflective reporting on their progress or with the use of the recognition initiatives. You can measure and have others evaluate the impact of each idea on individuals, on teams, as well as on performance measures. 

Step 5.2 Move Forward. 

It is important to remember that this is not just an improvement focus where you are optimizing recognition practices and programs and trying to eliminate defects. The purpose of innovating recognition programs and associated practices is creating something different from what existed before. Then these new recognition processes and programs can then be optimized using the familiar continuous improvement approach.

I hope this refocusing on how to innovate rather than just continuous improvement has been helpful. Work with your vendors and IT teams along with other stakeholders and to innovate your recognition programs for greater success. 

Recognition Reflection: When will you have an innovation session to address your recognition and reward programs?

Roy is no longer writing new content for this site (he has retired!), but you can subscribe to Engage2Excel’s blog as Engage2Excel will be taking Roy’s place writing about similar topics on employee recognition and retention, leadership and strategy.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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