Incentivizing the Wrong Things

July 6, 2016 · 0 comments

History is full of examples of institutions incentivizing the wrong things.

In 2007, in response to an increase in the population of wild pigs in the area surrounding Fort Benning in Georgia, the US Army sponsored a bounty program, paying local hunters from $25 to $40 per wild pig killed. All a hunter had to do to collect the bounty was present the pig’s tail along with a simple form.

But what the local hunters didn’t quite bargain for was that a team of Auburn University researchers led by Robert W. Holtfreter ran a population study of wild pigs in the same area, concurrent with the Army’s bounty program. And they quickly discovered that the number of pig tails turned in for the bounty didn’t quite match their field estimates of the wild pig population.

So they started making phone calls. They called ten local businesses that processed wild and/or domestic animals to see if they’d been asked to sell pig’s tails since the start of the 2007 bounty program, and if they’d sold any pig tails prior to the program. The researchers were eventually told that not only had one local business been recently asked to provide pig’s tails, but so had the other processors in the area, and the fact that “hunters” were buying tails from farm-raised pigs to turn in to the Army for the $40 bounty was “common knowledge.”

Of course, the Army couldn’t directly supervise every one of these private hunters, actually witnessing the legitimate killing of a wild pig in the bounty zone. They had to trust the hunters, and built only a simple, blunt instrument—their bounty form—to track where the pig was killed, when, and so on. There was no realistic way to check the veracity of the form, so at least a few of the locals started to game the system.

It’s fair to say that incentives drive behavior, so our goal should always be to develop processes in a way that incentivizes our teams to do the right thing. In the case of the Fort Benning bounty program, the motive for the hunters was money, full stop: Bring me a pig’s tail and I give you $40. But that didn’t necessarily align with the actual goal of the program: Reduce the wild pig population in the area until the population was normalized.

Are your processes encouraging software developers to stop working once a day’s arbitrary work goal is reached? Are your heavyweight processes encouraging developers to look for work-arounds, to spend their time looking for ways to get around the system in order to write quality code? Are you encouraging creativity in code, or creativity in managing your process?

It’s good to have goals, both short term and long. And it’s good to have certain metrics and some method to track accountability. But those goals, metrics, and processes should be balanced with the ultimate goal of enabling–of incentivizing–software developers do what they do best: develop software.

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