Friday May 08, 2009

Rules, incentives and Barry Schwartz's call for "practical wisdom" - and what of goals?

Another extraordinary TED presentation, this time by Barry Schwartz on The real crisis? We stopped being wise. It echoes a theme I'm seeing in many areas around how an over-attention to goals, metrics, rules, incentives, etc not only demonstrates a lack of trust by those setting them, it actually encourages the very behaviour they are seeking to avoid.

I'm a little leery about SMART goals. It's in all the management books of course and as a manager I'm expected to set them but we tend to over-rely on them. As Barry says in his presentation, we need rules, we need incentives but not more and more of them. They have their place but understand the limitations. I also recommend When Goal Setting Goes Bad which discusses the working paper entitled Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting.

Barry talks about how any scheme of incentives can be subverted and calls for wisdom and ethics to be nurtured. There's a Wired interview with Barry where he says:

"When you rely on incentives, you undermine virtues. Then when you discover that you actually need people who want to do the right thing, those people don’t exist because you’ve crushed anyone’s desire to do the right thing with all these incentives. And if you bring in a new set of people to replace them — virtuous, moral people who want to do the right thing — and they’re subjected to the same set of incentives, they’re going to become just like the people they replaced.

I’m not talking about getting rid of incentives; people have to make a living. But people need to understand that rules and incentives aren’t enough…. The more rules and incentives you have, the less wisdom you will have. There needs to be room left on the one hand to nurture in people the desire to do the right thing and on the other hand to give them the tools so that they’ll know what the right thing is. This incredible pressure to increase payoffs is an obstacle to doing the right thing. You will never be able to create a system of incentives that rewards people for doing the right thing. The system of incentives may start out that way, but very quickly clever people will find ways to … game it."

Amen to that.

Wednesday Oct 03, 2007

Just finished reading "Goal-Free Living"

Goal-Free Living: How to Have the Life You Want NOW! by Stephen M. ShapiroJust finished reading "Goal-Free Living: How to Have the Life You Want NOW!" by Stephen M. Shapiro. Recommended reading for anyone who has that lurking suspicion that there's more to life than what they're doing.

I enjoyed reading the book and it was a refreshingly intelligent contrast to the more usual business/life/self-help books. Similar to the latter there's an element of "this worked for me, it can work for you too!" - Stephen has done very well as a motivational speaker - but he does document many people's goal-free successes - are we're talking happiness, not necessarily money.

There are some excellent reviews and interviews available so I won't duplicate that effort, check:

My personal take was one of identification. I'm a little wary of how we tend to identify ourselves when it suits us, much like horoscopes, however it rang true for me in a number of places. The book lists eight 'secrets' and then fleshes them out with details such as the how and why. While you could just read the secrets and put the book back on the shelf it's worthwhile reading about the people Stephen interviewed as he worked on the book. As copied from the Amazon Editorial Review ...

  1. Use a compass, not a map
  2. Have a sense of direction, and then let yourself wander and try new things on the way to fulfilling your aspirations.
  3. Trust that you are never lost
  4. Every seemingly wrong turn is an opportunity to learn and experience new things.
  5. Remember that opportunity knocks often, but sometimes softly
  6. While blindly pursuing our goals, we often miss unexpected and wonderful possibilities.
  7. Want what you have
  8. Measure your life by your own yardstick and appreciate who you are, what you do, and what you have . . . now.
  9. Seek out adventure
  10. Treat your life like the one-time-only journey it is and revel in new and different experiences.
  11. Become a people magnet
  12. Constantly seek, build, and nurture relationships with new people so that you always have the support and camaraderie of others.
  13. Embrace your limits
  14. Transform your inadequacies and boundaries into unique qualities you can use to your advantage.
  15. Remain detached
  16. Focus on the present, act with a commitment to the future, and avoid worrying about how things will turn out.

I particularly like 1 (use a compass not a map) and 4 (want what you have).

I was reminded of a BBC 1 documentary and accompanying book called "In Search of Happiness" by Angus Deayton. Superficially it was about finding the strangest things that people do that make them happy and make jokes about them. More fundamentally it illustrated that happiness is subjective and not necessarily the goal-orientated, financial, career-enhancing future we so often seek.

Note that 'goal-free' doesn't mean 'goal-less'. Read the book for more details.

In the meantime it is probably worth mentioning that I've taken a management role at Sun. Still working in the same area (Solaris Engineering) but understanding how the organisation and people work rather than the kernel. How goal-free is that?

Don't get me started on SMART goals. That's another blog entry ...

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