Incentives, or When to Tax the Rat Farm

By Michael Priestley

Measuring performance is becoming an increasingly popular topic—from the performance of content to the performance of people. Tied closely with the idea of measuring performance is the concept of incentives. With the best of intentions, we provide encouragement to move toward a performance metric using incentives, rewarding achievement of goals, such as increased content reuse. Often the result is less than optimal. Why?

Where are you going?

Before you begin, you need to know where you want to end. That’s as true of incentives as it is of road trips, or article writing.

It should be easy to have clear goals, but it’s trickier than it seems. Consider some typical ways of thinking about measuring content performance. Do you want to increase page views? Or is that actually a proxy for increased visits that will (hopefully) turn into more sales, assuming a consistent ratio of views to conversions?

The metrics you choose to measure progress can affect not only the journey but the destination. Do you measure productivity by volume published? Congratulations for wrecking your customer search experience. Do you measure content success based on page engagement (whether viewers click on a link in the page)? Congratulations on a strategy that will relegate every page that actually answers a customer’s need to the dustbin.

Now add people into the mix. Creating effective metrics and incentives gets even trickier when you look at how different parts of an organization should work together to serve larger goals. If you have a technical communication department with incentives to reduce support calls, and a support department with incentives based on number of calls resolved, then you have a disincentive for support to work with the documentation team.

One of my favorite quotes is from Lou Gerstner’s book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? about his years leading IBM’s turnaround in the 1990s. “You don’t get what you expect,” he wrote, “you get what you inspect.”

Another of my favorite quotes is from Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, which is not about IBM. In the novel, a city is plagued by rats, so the rulers put a bounty on them. At first there are many bounties collected, then they taper off, as you’d expect. But then the number of bounties start going up again. What’s the answer? “Tax the rat farms.”

How do you make sure that your incentives are actually encouraging progress toward your goals (for example, a cohesive end to end customer experience, or fewer rats), instead of away from them (for example, documentation and support portals that compete with each other, and more rats)?

Where are you starting from?

After you have your end goal identified, look at the bigger picture. Understand what other incentives are in play, both explicit and implicit. Before you know how to get where you’re going, you need to know where you’re starting from.

Let’s say your goal is to increase the number of customers who successfully achieve their goal (or at least made progress toward it) using your website content. First, you need to understand what the problem is. What is preventing your customers from accomplishing their goals today? Is it a lack of the right content? Or does the content exist, but they can’t find it? Or maybe it exists, and they can find it, but it’s confusing or contradictory?

Depending on the problem (where you’re starting from), you might pursue different strategies and incentives, such as reducing content currently on your website to increase findability of the most valuable content, or targeting a focused increase in content to cover key gaps, or consolidating content that is redundant to make what’s left easier to find.

Let’s say you decide to pursue a consolidation strategy. You want your writers to be aware of what content already exists before they create new content, and to reuse instead of rewrite so the customer doesn’t end up with two contradictory sources for the information they need.

You may choose to have incentives for:

  • Creating high-quality content (you’ll still need this; the point is to get more use out of it)
  • Reusing content (so your writers don’t default to writing new content all of the time)
  • Creating content that is reusable (so writers will prepare their content for reuse, and collaborate with potential reusers)

At the end of the day, though, you still need to determine whether the customer experience is affected. Are you actually getting rid of rats, or have you just funded a rat farm?

Whatever incentives you choose, the key is to keep testing and evaluating them. Keep an eye on the larger goal, and remember that your strategies are not ends in themselves: high-quality content is meaningless if no one is using it, and reuse of low-quality content is worse than no reuse at all.

What will you do when you get there?

A final point, from my experience as a parent: sometimes you need incentives to change behavior—to create new habits, or break old ones. But as a parent, my ultimate goal isn’t to have children who just follow the carrot wherever it leads (although it would be nice if they cared more about carrots). I want them to learn to do the right thing—whatever that is—based on their own judgment and values. Incentives are a way for leaders to signal priorities to their teams, but they should reflect, and ultimately be subsumed by, the culture of the company. Part of any journey is knowing when you’ve arrived.

MICHAEL PRIESTLEY (mpriestl@ca.ibm.com) is a Product Owner and Content Technology Strategist, currently leading the IBM Marketing Taxonomy Guild to revise and align taxonomy initiatives across marketing tools and communities. He has experience working with and across documentation, support, training, and marketing content as an enterprise content technology strategist. He was one of the original architects and editors of the DITA standard, was named an OASIS Distinguished Contributor in 2017, and is currently co-chairing the Lightweight DITA subcommittee.

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