Perverse Incentives and Personal Greed: A Recipe for Innovation Fatigue

A former technical expert at one of the world’s most famous consumer product companies told me of a hiring decision that made $80,000 for one executive, hurt several careers, cost the company millions of dollars, and crushed innovation in a once-promising unit of the company. This recipe for innovation fatigue has numerous variations, but they all combine poorly considered incentives coupled with selfishness in those who can exploit the incentives at the cost of corporate health.

In this case, the company had instituted an incentive program for senior management to promote its hiring goals. Unfortunately, the result of the incentives was that one executive realized that if he hired a particular unqualified outsider for a key leadership role, he would reach his goal and get a large bonus. On the other hand, if he were to select one of several experienced employees who were ready and qualified for the promotion, he would not get his bonus. He was blunt about that in ordering one of his direct reports to hire the unqualified candidate. “I meet my goal and $80,000 if hire that person. Do it.” The leader ordered to make the hire tried explaining that this position required a knowledge of science, technology, and markets that the unqualified candidate did not have. It required experience that the candidate did not have. It would hurt the company. But none of this mattered. What mattered was an incentive the company was offering, a perverse incentive indeed.

The outsider was hired and proved to be a disaster. Lacking the experience and knowledge needed to make key decisions, the division was run by stalling and passing the buck, with many diversions that wasted the time and efforts of numerous employees. Several highly talented people left in frustration, including one person who probably should have been given a chance to lead the group. Significant innovation projects essentially ground to a halt, a classic case of innovation fatigue and a painful reminder of how poorly considered incentives can harm a corporation.

Perverse incentives that encourage employees to harm the company for their own benefit one of the many factors that can block innovation and entrepreneurship in corporations

Related resource: A excellent business book, “The Science of Success” by Charles Koch of Koch Industries, has a good chapter on incentives that discusses the problem of perverse incentives.


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