Last week I was privileged to participate in a webinar hosted by the Incentive and Engagement Solution Providers (IESP) and Brant Dolan of Quality Incentive Company. In this conversation, we talked about the importance of design in incentive programs and its role in moving programs beyond simple “do this, get that” transactional activities.

Design is critically important to making incentives an important part of business strategy. Design is not just an esoteric exercise. Design is a way of layering business strategy into incentive activities so they address two important problems:

  • How do you build programs that deliver better business results? What are the business challenges you are trying to address?
  • How do you build programs that maintain the audience’s engagement after the program has ended? What is the participant experience?

Like the Roman god Janus, effective design looks in two directions at once: 1) to the company, to maximize program results, and 2) to the people being asked to deliver, to ensure the overall program experience is rewarding.

Maximize Results:

Many incentive programs fail on the first point; they don’t have a clear and measurable goal on which success will be measured. Consequently, how programs are designed is perfunctory, not anchored to a clear business goal. Too many programs are designed as “one size fits all,” or focus only on top performers. As a result, programs are not optimal in their ability to generate business results: too many people get left behind and are not engaged, which limits the ability to realize growth from the incentive. The concept of “move the middle” has been in the marketplace for a very long time, yet few companies actually build this into their program. It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to apply “move the middle” concepts, but it does require some knowledge of program design to build a program structure that will effectively engage your middle performers and tap into their potential to generate growth.

Another opportunity to maximize the effectiveness of programs is to expand the focus so they are not just about outcomes, but also behaviors that lead to positive outcomes. Again, the importance of “steps to the sale” is not a new concept, yet including measurement and reward of behaviors in a program is applied inconsistently. Including behavior-based reinforcement can help not only to lift performance in more members of sales teams but also to lift their competency levels and create professional development opportunities that become personally enriching. Without creating higher levels of competency, incentives have in the past been accused of driving “energized incompetence.”

Experience Design:

The other direction in which design points is toward the person in the program. Design begins with knowing your audience, walking in the shoes of your people. Design is more than just formulating the rules of the program; design is an opportunity to make a program an end-to-end experience. Design is an opportunity to create not only better outcomes but also an engaging program journey. To that end, programs should include communications, measurement and feedback and community tools that by themselves will energize the people in the program.

There is important science that reminds incentive providers of the importance of people-centered design. The work of Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria of Harvard Business School suggested that the “Drive to Acquire” which is the focus of most incentives is not the only factor that affects our discretionary performance. They suggested that people are motivated by equally powerful biological drives to Bond with others, and to Create, to make a contribution. These two drives are transformational, not just transactional inputs to performance and decision-making. To the extent incentive programs can move beyond transactional levers and transform sellers, they can help to generate more effective engagement with others and with a brand.

The most recent research that speaks to the importance of people-centered design focuses on a new and all-important factor: the brand. Consumer programs have long understood the power of brand and customer experience; that knowledge also applies to B2B activities. Research published last summer in Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice and spearheaded by Animate Growth Partners’ founder Chris Galloway indicated that emotional connection to the brand (in conjunction with high intrinsic motivation and high confidence) is the leading driver of sales effort and is more important than extrinsic motivation such as incentives.1 This doesn’t imply that extrinsic motivation is no longer relevant. Rather, it’s critical to align intrinsic factors and positive emotional connections to the brand with the incentives that reward desired performance and make sellers feel valued.


Design is a critical activity that can maximize the effectiveness of programs for program owners while simultaneously creating more engaging experiences for the people in the program. How can companies access the right level of design support? Incentive program owners can now access a suite of independent design services from Animate Growth Partners to plug in design services on a “just in time” basis.

Visit our new page offering “DaaS” –  Design as a Service.

It’s important to ensure that design plays a role in every incentive program. Design can elevate the role and perception of incentives and in the process can lead to 1) better business results for companies and 2) more enriching experiences and deeper brand connections for their people.


1 Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, “The Role of Affective Brand Commitment on Sales Effort,” Vol 25, Issue 3 2017