Sunday, August 24, 2008

You get what you incent

Just to be clear, humans are incented by more than just money.  So the phrase, you get what you incent, does not necessarily mean you get what you pay for - although that may also be a true statement.  A friend of mine once said, "I can go a month on a good thank you."  Incentives come in all shapes and sizes.  If you are trying to deliver quality software, think about incenting the activities that will yield proven, sound techniques.

Naturally, some managers believe that their staffs are professionals and that beyond the compensation package and each individual's desire to deliver high quality products, the manager does not need to provide additional incentives.  I tend to agree with most of that perspective, up until to the 'don't need' part. 

Consider this.  The Federal Aviation Administration conducts tests to better plan for and handle airline emergencies.  Understanding how people will react in a crises situation can help the FAA create new procedures and safety equipment for which we will all benefit.  So... they simulate airline emergencies using professional actors who get paid $11.00 per hour for their work.  These actors are given specific roles to play and specific seats in which to sit.  The FAA then creates the faux incident to video and monitor the actor's reactions.

But those actors, with all of their Stanislavski training just don't respond in the same way as real, honest to goodness, terrified-for-my-life-get-out-of-my-way real passengers.  Passengers who, by the way, are not paid anything to act hysterically.  Confronted with this obstacle, the FAA was perplexed as to how to get the actors to behave more irrationally.  You get what you incent.  So they told the actors that first 25% off the airplane would be paid double.  It worked, with knees, elbows, profanity, and me-first behavior running rampant.

As an interesting aside, how many times a day do you think these emergency procedures are employed?  You've heard the flight attendants talking about finding the closest exit, which may be behind you yada, yada, yada.  But of course, any airline emergencies that might require your actual attention are so very rare, that well, watching baggage fall off the conveyor belt is a much better use of your time.  Someone once commented that in the event of an emergency landing they will not be looking for an exit; instead they leave via the large gaping hole in the aircraft.  Eleven.  According to the FAA, airlines utilize their emergency evacuation procedures 11 times a day in the US. 

So let's say you want to make sure that the code being developed is appropriately documented.  First decide what that means; does it mean you have a code-to-comment ratio greater than 20%.  How are you going to measure it; with tools, by hand, is it just raw commentary - or meaningful commentary?  Then create an incentive for getting there.  Any developer who delivers a code to comment ratio between 20% and 25% gets extended lunch for a week.  Or spend $25 on a trophy and who ever delivers gets to keep the cup in their cube for a month.  It won't take much - consider the actors 'pretending' to be scared to death.  At the same time, if the prize is too cheesy, it will diminish the value of the very goal you're trying to achieve.  Be realistic.

Let's say your team is moving office locations.  Make one of the window seats in the new location an incentive for something you need the team to rally around.  I know people who will run over their grandmother for a window seat.  Why their grandmothers are working here, I don't know, but still!  Here are some other incentives that might just cause some useful excitement:

  • A meeting-free week for the first person to accomplish 'X'.  Do you know what I would do for a meeting free week?
  • Upgraded computer.  Let's say you have ten personal computers in your team, each with a different refresh date.  Whoever reaches goal 'XYZ' gets the next refreshed computer - and time to set it up 'just so'.
  • All jeans all week.  Allow the winner of a contest to wear jeans all week, instead of just Friday.

These are but a few, off the top of my head ideas.  Think about what is meaningful to your team.  I know of one conference room where there is only one decent chair.  Who ever meets the challenge first - gets that chair, guaranteed, in every meeting for a month.  Of course for longer-term goals, you'll want something repetitive and meaningful, but the idea is that humans react to incentives other than US American Dollars.  Of course, we tend to react to them too.

What are some of your incentive ideas?

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