Catalyze Innovation that Advances Health

Tips for Improving the Recognition Dimension


Recognition for innovation can be done through symbols and rituals whose main purpose is to acknowledge innovative behavior. They signal how much value is given, or not, to the efforts of individuals and teams who come up with new ways to help the organization or system achieve its strategic goals. Because it is all about encouraging more of this sort of behavior, the best recognition is that which appeals to people’s intrinsic and individualized motivation. The most successful recognition schemes avoid a one-size-fits-all approach and are instead based on a deeper understanding of what makes people do what they do. For example, frequent personal expression of appreciation is often more important to people than financial reward.  

  • “[If] recognition don’t follow suit, then the lasting innovation culture you seek will be fleeting at best.” Troy Geesaman, Innovation and Strategy Director at the product design firm Iaga
  • “Enhancing innovation… entails a dramatic departure from many traditional management practices. Rather than rewarding only success and punishing failure, companies should reward both.” Robert Sutton. The weird rules of creativity. Harvard Business Review (2001)
  • “The best ‘end of project’ awards cleverly capture the heart of the achievement.” Tom Kelly, CEO at the design firm IDEO.

Keep it simple and sincere. Recognition can come in many forms; the more direct, straightforward and heartfelt, the better. A simple ‘thank you’, delivered personally out in the staff member’s or team’s environment, along with a description of the idea in your own words that shows that you really took the time to understand what they are suggesting goes a long way. Taking the time to explain what will be done with the idea, or what you want them to do with it next, is another simple thing to do. If the idea cannot be taken up, providing a thoughtful explanation as to why tells them that the idea was given consideration, while also providing some coaching as to how to come up with an even more useful idea next time around.  

Be genuine and sincere in your efforts to recognize staff ideas. They can detect if you are simply going through the motions and don’t seem to really mean it when you say that you appreciate their efforts. It would be better to say nothing at all than to say something that comes across as insincere.  

Seek to understand and work with what intrinsically motivates innovators. While “it’s the thought that counts” does indeed count for something, standardized awards may leave the receiver feeling theirs has been a superficial rather than significant accomplishment in the eyes of the organization. In order to stimulate more innovation, we need more people who feel a deep bond of appreciation from their organization.  

3M’s HR Policy Stimulates Innovation By Giving Innovators What They Really Want… Studies of innovators across a variety of sectors indicate that what many would like most is more time to work on innovations because they personally value the excitement and challenge of trying to do something different. Understanding this intrinsic motivator, the industrial firm 3M, for example, has a human resources policy that allows all staff to take up to 15% of their time on the job to work on innovative ideas, and then provides even more allowance of time for the most promising ideas.  

This tip simply suggests that while, as a practical matter, you might ask a small group to come up with ideas for recognition of innovation, that group needs first to go out and talk with lots of people who might be the potential recipients of such recognition. It also suggests that you may need an array of ways to recognize accomplishments and a way to match these to an understanding of what is meaningful to each individual you wish to recognize.  

When we think of ‘recognition’, monetary prizes often come to mind first. While few people would refuse to accept a monetary reward, there is a great body of evidence to indicate that the vast majority of people do not do what they do in order only to get more money (Kohn 1990). Rather, there are many other intrinsic motivators; that is, factors internal to a person and having to do with their values and perspectives (see box).  

What motivates you?

  • Many front-line staff feel that monetary recognition for ideas should be directed at purchasing equipment or further enhancing the service because their personal values are deeply centered on caring for patients.
  • Two team members were supported in attending a conference on innovation and improvement. Their experience was so good they could not stop talking about it and the new ideas they had learnt. Many have inquired if this recognition was available for others.

  To gain insight into others’ intrinsic motivation, initiate conversations as you walk about or interact with small groups. Use open-ended discussion starters such as:

  • What was the best recognition you ever had in a work situation?
  • What could we do to make you feel recognized and supported in the work you have done?
  • What motivated you choose to work in the health care sector versus others?

Talk to lots of people. Listen appreciatively. While you will no doubt hear diversity in the responses, you will also begin to see patterns. Use these insights as input to the design of any recognition effort.  

Set up structures and processes to enable peer, patient and carer recognition for innovation. Don’t think of recognition and recognition as only being top-down, or something that comes from ‘an organization’. For many staff, being recognized by peers, patients and carers is very important and meaningful. Comments from peers and patients could be incorporated into an internal newsletter article, the local press, or an internal awards ceremony.   There are a variety of ways to systemically encourage such recognition. For example:

  • Place wall posters about recently introduced innovations in patient care areas and include a comment wall where patients and carers can write whatever they wish. A selection of these comments can be read aloud at staff meetings on a regular basis. (See the box Big Brother’s Diary Room Comes to the NHS for another example involving direct patient and carer feedback.)
  • Set up periodic, but casual, showcase events where several individuals and teams are given support to create a posterboard where they can talk about what they have done. Setting up the stands for a few hours in areas where lots of staff, patients and carers naturally pass and giving staff time to man the stands (perhaps rotating through in shifts to spread the recognition around) encourages casual, ‘buzz-y’ conversation.
  • Set up periodic ‘open house’ times where places with innovative practices are available to showcase what they have done. Publicize these well and encourage participation.

Big Brother’s Diary Room Comes to the NHS. Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Trust borrowed the ‘diary room’ idea from TV’s Big Brother to capture on-the-spot experiences from patients and carers in order to gather feedback and prioritize changes. The team borrowed a camera from the trust’s digital imaging department and put posters up to invite patients and carers to take part. In the genito-urinary medicine clinic, the team made audio recordings instead so that patients could participate without feeling uncomfortable. In addition to getting many ideas for improvement from patients and carers, the recordings also provided a source of very positive feedback to staff on changes that had already been made. In the light of its success, the team is now beginning to visit patients at home to record their personal stories. These will be played to the trust board to help shape future commissioning plans.  

The possibilities are endless. The point is simply to put your leadership effort to use facilitating this sort of interaction, in addition to the more common formal recognition efforts that leaders should, of course, continue to do.  

Reward and recognize ‘failed’ attempts at innovation where you can celebrate learning. Recall the discussion under risk taking about how important it is to have a new mindset about ‘failure’.   Failure is an integral part of the innovation process, provided that it is seen as an opportunity for learning and moving on to a next iteration. If individuals and teams who try a new idea that fails are shunned, even just a little or in seeming jest, they are less likely to try to innovate again.  

Whatever you decide to do as a structure and process for recognizing innovation in your team, organization, or health system, make sure that you design something to also recognize ‘attempts with learning’. When the culture is such that it seems just as easy to talk about these examples as it is successful innovations you will have gone a long way towards creating the conditions for innovation.  

Grand prizes and competitions create a few winners and lots of losers; instead seek to reward all legitimate innovations and attempts. While it is common to have competition schemes where someone wins the prize over everyone else—and we are not totally against such schemes—it is important to step back for a moment to recognize a potential consequence. Many more teams and individuals ‘lose’ the competition than win. The potential unintended message is: “Your efforts weren’t good enough”.   A better (or additional) approach is to establish reasonable, but explicit and transparent, criteria for what you want to call an ‘innovation’ or an ‘attempt with learning’ and then recognize as many or as few examples as meet the criteria (see box). If there are 37 examples that meet the criteria, recognize them all equally. If there are only 2 that meet the criteria, recognize those and call for more like them.  

Firm criteria, variable number of winners. Countries around the world offer prizes annually to firms that demonstrate excellence in quality. Several of these awards program follow the philosophy of being firm on a set of criteria and then recognizing as few or as many organizations as meet these. For example, over the years, the Japanese Deming Prize has seen years when as many as eight awards were given, as well as a year when no award was presented because no organization rose to the standard. Similarly, the number of winners of the American Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award has varied from two to seven.   The companion publication in this series entitled Making a Bigger Difference (available from the NHS Institute in a version for commissioners and one for staff and leaders of provider organizations) provides one approach to setting criteria for innovative ideas. The ‘harvesting by criteria and dot voting’ tool in another companion guide, Thinking Differently (also available from the NHS Institute), also provides guidance on this.  

A final word… It is important to have some criteria to define what you mean by ‘innovation’ and how it is different from incremental improvement or change of any kind. Calling every change an ‘innovation’ risks demotivating the stretch, or paradigm-altering, change that we need more of.  

More tips that can also help you enhance the Recognition dimension can be found in other sections…  

  • Go out of your way to provide emotional support for innovators
  • Link innovation efforts to waste-reduction techniques that free up resources. 
  • Start a ‘Not Invented Here’ program where leaders, managers, and staff are supported to seek out knowledge and ideas from outside health care that can be adapted to address key organizational challenges. 
  • Regularly share and celebrate innovations that are already happening in your organization or system.



NOTE: All of the information on the Elements of a Culture of Innovation, Assessment, and Tips for Leaders were adapted from Maher, Lynne, Paul Plsek, Jenny Price, and Mark Mugglestone, (2010), “Creating the Culture for Innovation: A Practical Guide for Leaders” published by the National Health Service (NHS) Institute for Innovation and Improvement in the United Kingdom