Tuesday, March 4, 2008

1.1 How to Build Horrible Social Systems by Accident: Incentives

In the last entry, I proposed that tools and organizations, often (make that usually-- actually make that almost always) unintentionally bake into their very structures a set of implicit instructions for their members / users about what behavior is appropriate, rewarded, or discouraged.

How, exactly, do they do that? Here are some of many possible answers.
Incentive Systems. Behaviors rewarded by your system or tool will grow in emphasis and frequency; behaviors that are punished will become less frequent. This statement may seem obvious; people are always trying to leverage positive or negative incentives to get one another to do things. Unfortunately, those conscious incentive programs are usually laid on top of preexisting incentive systems that are deeper, more subtle, more ubiquitous, and far less intentional. In other words, they are much more convincing to the people involved, and are impossible to casually override.

Example: You have a new software company, and you have to hire some people and then give them employee reviews of some kind. Like many orgs, you base your employee review system on whether or not an employee succeeds at his projects. If he succeeds at all of them, he gets a raise; if he fails at his projects, he gets a poor review and a lower bonus. If he gets three poor reviews in a row, he gets fired.
While this seems like a simple and obvious incentive system, you are literally incenting your average employee (let's call her Martha Generic) to succeed at her own projects… even if that messes up everyone else's. If she sacrifices her own project, one quarter, to enable four other projects to succeed, she will still be punished by your system.

Example, Cont'd: Five years down the line (after every manager in your company has worked your incentive system into dozens of mini-processes and deliverables), you discover your employees aren't collaborating. You say to yourself: "These poor geeks just don't know how to collaborate. I've got to get them thinking like a team…"

You start publishing some weekly articles on the importance of collaboration. You deliver a motivational speech to the whole company about how software development is really about putting "people first." You offer a trophy for the "most collaborative team member."

Will it work?

What would happen if you created an online community (let's say, a "resource group for workaholics") and let your members give each other public ratings (1-5 stars) on two things: "Humor" and "Best Vocabulary"? … What if it were an automated system that gave privileges based on "Most Links Contributed"?

Next up: 1.2 There is no I in Meme: Language and Messaging

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