To test this theory, the researchers conducted several experiments. In the first, 122 engineering students in the U.S. were asked to design a car jack for use by older adults. Participants were randomly assigned — some received no training or rewards, others got training or were eligible for rewards, and some were offered both. Those who received training were taught how to visualize, in detail, how a potential customer would use a product — a visualization method that has been shown to help engineers produce innovative and effective designs. The top monetary prize was $250, and two judges — drivers older than 60 — evaluated each of the 122 designs on a six-item scale for novelty and usefulness.
The second experiment repeated most of those conditions with different judges and a different group of students. As with the previous experiment, some participants received no training or rewards, some got training or were eligible for rewards, and some were offered both. This time, however, the 110 engineering students received a more general kind of creative training involving visualization, in which they were asked to write a short story about an object coming to life.
The results demonstrated that by combining training with the monetary reward, the creativity effort was greatly enhanced, with those receiving a combination of training and rewards in the first experiment performing a bit better than their counterparts in the second experiment, where the training wasn’t as intense. (Neither the monetary award nor the training influenced the amount of time people spent on the task, meaning that the better performance wasn’t just a result of perseverance.)
Overall, the authors conclude that firms should do more to provide creativity training. The strategy of firms that don’t offer training boils down to “hiring the right people and simply expecting that they will be creative,” the authors write. At the same time, managers shouldn’t turn their backs on offering rewards, despite mounting evidence that they can backfire when used on their own.
It is the combination of training and rewards that produces a result bigger than what either accomplishes on its own, the authors say; companies can thus boast employees who possess both enhanced capabilities and increased motivation.
Many firms use bonuses to encourage innovative work from their employees despite widespread findings that this approach can be counterproductive. But monetary rewards can be valuable when paired with formal training on creative thinking, a strategy not widely adopted. In tandem, rewards and training can enhance, rather than diminish, employees’ intrinsic motivation, which in turn helps them produce more creative ideas.