Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

When Goals Don’t Match Incentives

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Several months ago I wrote about how improv and business relationships can resemble some of the classic 2 x 2 games, such as Chicken or the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Improv and business have characteristics in common with other games, too.

My last post mentioned Mikhail Tal, one of the fiercest attackers in the history of chess. He specialized in knocking the position and his opponent off balance and winning in the resulting complications. Tal lost a lot of games in dramatic fashion, too, but his games were rarely boring.

You can’t make progress in an improv scene or business if you’re afraid to shake things up. Unlike in chess, where you face an opponent over the board by yourself, improvisers and business people have colleagues who are working with you toward a common goal. At least, that’s the ideal. You probably know what kind of disasters can happen when you and your colleagues aren’t all moving in the same direction. But why would team members work at cross purposes? One possible reason is that an individual’s incentives don’t align with the project goal.

As an example, suppose you’re a programmer tasked with shipping a product update one month from today. Further, assume your annual bonus and (possibly) continued employment hinge on releasing your code by the deadline. I can guarantee that you will do everything you can, including cutting every available corner if necessary, to get that software out the door 30 days from now. Doing so meets your objective of getting the software out the door, but does so at the expense of the company’s overarching goal of providing quality products to its customers.

Economists and game theorists call this practice suboptimization, where individuals focus on part of a process at the expense of the project as a whole. Chess players can suboptimize by trying to reach an endgame with very few pieces on the board, regardless of what the position calls for earlier in the game. Improvisers can suboptimize by “working on a character” or “finding a way to work a song into this scene” no matter what happens in a scene. And, as argued above, companies can make their employees suboptimize by setting incentives improperly.

I wish I had a good answer for the problem of suboptimization in organizations. It’s relatively easy for individuals to avoid it if they can identify the larger goals they’re working toward, but it’s hard for employees to consciously work in a manner that won’t be directly rewarded. If it’s a choice between getting paid and doing what’s best for the organization, I say take the money and work with your boss to restructure your incentives after you cash the check.

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