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Incentives and metrics - a personal account

A continuation of my last post about metrics, here is a personal account on the subject…


The setup

I first recognised how powerful inventive was whilst I was at university.

The psychology department would often ask for participants for studies in return for a few quid. As a broke student this was a great opportunity. You could sit down, get asked some questions, and get some beer money. On the whole it was pretty easy, although once it was a bit more intense - they wanted me to get inside a MRI scanner but the payoff was £40. So naturally, I accepted.

These studies also gave me a chance to ask about the theory that underpinned them. Being an engineering student, the majority of my days were grounded in deep, technical concepts which did very little to feed the more human-side of my hungry mind. So the studies represented an opportunity to gain money and scratch my itch for learning in other areas.

One study stood out. The setup was simple. You and one other participant were asked to sit either side of an interactive coffee table which scrolled endlessly through news stories (complete with pictures). The instruction was simple just keep talking about a given subject. Just keep talking. That’s it.

Conditioning

After 10 minutes the coordinator interrupted us with a quiz sheet of flags of the world. Identify a flag and you get £1 each. Twelve flags on a page meant that we were in for a few pints and a round of pool at the student bar. Result! Except it wasn’t that easy - some of the flags were obvious, some weren’t so.

We managed to identify about half the flags before being asked to continue our discussion, this time on another subject. But remember, it’s really important to just keep talking - we’re filming you as part of this study.

After a minute or so into this second round of discussion a flag appeared on the coffee table news reel. Our eyes immediately picked up on this bounty as we’d been conditioned that “flags = beer”. We started frantically tapping at the table to see if we could find another answer for our quiz sheet and net some more cash.

More flags appeared. We tapped more. And combined with the laggy software which stuttered if you tapped the screen too quickly, our discussions faltered.

The fall

At this point we had forgotten the primary task - keep the discussion going. We were completely focussed on getting more money for beer.

This it turns out is a deeply programmed survival function. If say, for example, you need food to survive and you’re in a dense forest you can tune your attention to become hyper aware of berries. And that makes sense. You’re seeing a lot more than you’re perceiving. You’re filtering out everything you don’t care about and looking only for berries. Survival is more critical than enjoying birdsong and the sunlight rippling through the forest canopy so you block that stuff out to reduce unnecessary cognitive load.

Implication

Here’s the rub though. This too happens in business. Whilst we’re far from foraging to survive, these traits are still embedded in us. You and your staff have a finite amount of cognitive resource so if you incentivise certain behaviours, you’re disincentivising others.

An example of how this plays out is when you compare your strategy with your actual output. If you evangelise the business’s innovative strategy for the greater good (“the greater good”) but you don’t adapt the goals you set your teams, then they’ll keep doing what they’ve always done.

Whatever your strategy, unless your metrics are aligned to it, don’t be surprised if the the course your business takes isn’t quite the same as the one you planned.


For the inqusitive - in the study I discussed we later found out some of the flags on the quiz sheet in the study were not real. This was to stop a trained vexillologist from rocking up, clearing the quiz, and losing interest in the incentive in the second part of the study…

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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