Is your Innovation Reward System Miserables?

Miserables Reward Structure

In the course of writing blog entries over the past several months, I’ve pulled inspiration from Walt Disney, Superheroes, Star Wars, and American Football.  Now, in an effort to show that I have a little more depth, I will pull from the 19th century classic Victor Hugo novel, Les Miserables.  OK… to be fair, I have never actually read the 959 page behemoth of a novel, BUT I have seen the musical several times as well as a couple of movie adaptions.  Les Miz is one of my all time favorite tales- set during the time of the French Revolution, this story is not so much one of good versus evil but rather of principles versus rules or condemnation versus forgiveness.

For those that don’t know the story, here is my condensed summary (959 pages in 2 paragraphs!) of the primary two characters…

Jean Valjean is the story’s protagonist… a man who is principle-based, but not necessarily rule-based. His back story is that as a young man, he stole a loaf of bread to feed his ill and starving sister… and then spent 19 years in prison paying for that crime. Upon leaving prison, he is scorned and abused as an ex-con and again turns to an act of crime.  He steals some silver from a bishop who, instead of turning Valjean into the police, gives the silver to Valjean making Valjean promise that he will use it to turn his life around and to become an honest man. Valjean does as he promises… however, in order to do so he has to break a lot of “rules” including breaking his parole and assuming a new identity.  Valjean flees, becomes a model citizen and business owner, and spends several years helping dozens of people to make a living and to lead a better life. Later, he intervenes and frees and cares for a sick and troubled woman who been driven to and convicted of prostitution, caring for her until the day of her death. He then flees from law enforcement to save and protect this woman’s young daughter and risks everything to give her a better life. In the end, he dies a hero, sacrificing himself to save the lives of many around him.

Javert, on the other hand, is the antagonist of this epic tale and spends his life in pursuit of Valjean. He is a strict enforcer of the law, and believes that each and every rule should be followed and not questioned… no matter the circumstances. Thus, he believes that those who break the laws should be punished and given no mercy.  He is indifferent to the fact that Valjean has turned his life around and is now doing far more good for the world than he had ever done harm.  He pursues Valjean doggedly throughout the story with his life’s purpose to make sure that this rule-breaker gets what he deserved.

Watching the story, it is clear that Valjean is the hero and that Javert is the villian.  Despite the fact that Valjean has made several mistakes and broken may laws throughout his life, he chooses to overcome his past and to sacrifice himself for the greater good.  He adds a lot of value to the world around him throughout the course of his life, and was “Amazing”, but certainly not “Perfect”.  Javert on the other hand, saw the world entirely in black & white.  He was the enforcer of the rules, and always did what he felt that he was supposed to do.  He valued order and consistency, and believed that mistakes were not to be forgiven… they were to be punished.  His mission is eliminating “errors” around him… in the actions, behaviors, and judgment of others.  Javert spends his life as the enforcer of “Perfect” rather than “Amazing”.  The roles of hero and villain are very clear in watching this tale unfold… the audience wants to see Valjean succeed and to see Javert fail.  And, in the end, the audience gets what it wants.

While these roles of hero and villain are clear in their exaggerated personas as outlined above, in the real world it gets a little messier.  Particularly, thinking about a workplace environment the distinction between the principle-based, “amazing” rule breaker and the detail-oriented, “perfect” rule enforcer is not nearly as clear cut.  For the sake of example, imagine these two (less exaggerated) characters in your office:

  • Valjean is smart, gutsy, and action-oriented.  He is unafraid to take risks and is more than comfortable to break a few rules to deliver results.  He supports his people and will throw himself in front of a bus for them.  Over the course of his career, he has delivered some “homerun” initiatives, but has also had his share of Strike Outs.  While he is seen as inconsistent, his talent and potential are massive so he is frequently entrusted with the toughest challenges.  His total value to the organization over the duration of his career is unparalleled, but he has had a few tough years when his risk-taking did not pan out.  He is frequently praised for being creative, bold, and action-oriented, but admonished for failing to follow rules and procedures in which he did not find value.
  • Javert on the other hand is as hard working as they come.  Always the first one in the office and the last one to leave, he does everything by the book… and demands that those around him do so as well.  His people are generally intimidated by him, but as long as they stay mistake-free and on task, he will support them.  Javert is the model of consistency, and has never had a bad year… although he has never had an amazing one either.  His consistency and work ethic have led to above-average results over the course of his career, although he has never had a “home run”.  He is rewarded for his consistency, his lack of errors, and his efficiency, but criticized for his inability to take risks, inspire others, and think out of the box.

Given these two distinctly different and unique individuals, which is more likely to find success in your organization?  Valjean has the higher upside potential and in the end will likely deliver more business potential… but he comes at a much higher risk.  Javert on the other hand is never going to deliver a blockbuster breakthrough innovation… but he is as reliable as they come.

The truth is that both individuals are needed for the long-term success of an Innovative organization, and thus both must be rewarded.  This is a classic case of needing a system that is “Fair, but Not Equal”.  Consider the following scenarios:

  • If your organization disproportionately rewards for risk-taking and home run hitting, then executional rigor and consistency will suffer.
  • If however, your organization focuses more on flawless execution (and thus punishes for mistakes), then the innovative capability to deliver big and breakthrough initiatives will diminish.
  • If you solely evaluate individuals on a year-by-year performance evaluation, and do not consider the big picture then you will likely disproportionally reward “one-hit wonders” and unfairly punish the risk-takers whose work either did not pan out or at least did not pan out yet.
  • If you only look at long-term results and the “big picture” then you may under-value the solid, consistent performer who delivers perfect, if not amazing work day in and day out.

The trick, then, is to have different and unique roles as well as rules for both the Valjeans and Javerts of your organization.  If you place both men into a situation where out-of-the box thinking and risk taking is both required and rewarded, then Valjean will look like a star and Javert will struggle.  On the other hand, in a position in which strict attention to details, deadlines, and delivery is needed, then Javert will excel and Valjean will struggle.  And not only will work performance suffer, but culturally there will be issues as well as these two conflicting styles can become very adversarial and even exaggerate their behaviors.   Said differently, when it comes to performance reviews and reward structures, there can not be a one-size-fits-all approach… both sets of skills and approaches are needed and assignments and evaluations must be tailored accordingly.  This can come to life via differing evaluation criteria and performance review processes.  Again, one skill set is not necessarily greater than the other, but they are distinctly different so it is important to reward and recognize employees in a way that is “fair but not equal”

Within an organization, the culture and performance are largely driven by the reward structure- Like it or not, in the “big picture”, we are what we measure.  Individuals largely want to be successful, and will either tailor their behaviors to achieve rewards, leave the organization to find someplace where their skills are more appreciated, or become unhappy and potentially destructive when they perceive their unique talents are being disproportionately disregarded.  Therefore, if you want to have a balance of risk-taking and rule-following (which is critical for the success of an innovative environment), then it is important to get the right people into the right roles and to reward them accordingly.  Otherwise, the individuals, the culture, and the results will be Miserables.

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