Rethink sales incentives

Recognise the best, engage the rest

Sales incentive programs are usually aimed at the middle 60%-70% of the population. Some might say “why do I need to incentivise them, it’s what I pay them for.” If there is no gap between your objectives and the performance of the sales force you may well not need an incentive. However, if there is a gap, a well-designed sales incentive program is likely the best way to close it. And there is a reason for that.

Recognising the contribution of top performers is critical, and should be treated as an investment in retention of not only top performers but also middle. If you don’t recognise them, your competitors will. An incentive program that calls for the top 10% of sales reps to qualify for a travel award may engage 30% or so of the population. The remaining 70% feel they have no real chance to earn the award. A sales incentive program is often designed to drive increased unit sales, accomplishment of individual objectives or delivery of incremental volume. In any event, a well-designed sales incentive program will engage all participants because, unlike with a top performer program, the sales rep needs only compete with him/herself, not with the entire group. The ability to be reinforced for individual increment is what differentiates the incentive from recognition. And because top performers are just that, the increment they can generate is often limited.

Just the opposite is true for the middle 70%. Design the program with these sales reps in mind and the sales incentive will often generate more than enough incremental profitability to fund both the recognition and incentive programs.

Why it works

Studies show the most effective way to drive additional sales is to engage those in the middle of your performance curve.

  • Most top-tier performers are already operating at or near capacity
  • To gain additional sales, you need to engage the middle of your performance curve
  • Identify shared behaviours among your top sales reps
  • Inspire those desired behaviours among middle performers
  • Use the right mix of culturally-relevant rewards, incentives and recognition

Economics, psychology and blockchain systems

Blockchain platforms are economic systems. And just like any economy, a blockchain requires that its designers define monetary policy (inflation), fiscal policy (block size), taxation (fees), voting (governance/upgrades), and provide for the common defence (securing the network). Yet, unlike traditional economies, they offer the possibility of greater freedom and transparency because they avoid the problems of centralisation and concentration of power.

So the blockchain is great for academic economists, because it is a kind of living economic laboratory. Economists have plenty of tools for designing such systems. Does it end there? No, because the blockchain does not evolve randomly but by attempts at designing new, and better, models for money, ownership, control, trade, lending, licensing, and investment. In other words, many of the key innovations of the blockchain are economic innovations, and that means we need economists to help design them.

The problem with traditional economics is that it has two major assumptions, based on which the entire economic system is built. First, it assumes humans are rational and always and consistently optimise their utility (happiness, satisfaction). Second, economic theory assumes that on macro economic level there is or tends to be an equilibrium or balance which economics systems need to attain. In other words, we assume wisdom of the crowds and efficient market hypothesis. But what if neither is true, at least some times?

Humans are irrational by design. Just look at some of the decisions each of us make on a daily basis. We may vote for policies that go against our own economic interests. We make food selections that are at odds with our physical health. So there’s no clear, codeable logic in much of our behaviour.

Blockchain systems are, by design, difficult to change once deployed. Repairs and improvements to these systems are difficult. Protocols with billion-dollar valuations could disappear overnight. Things can get very acrimonious. Check the infamous Bitcoin block size debate. And one of the most difficult aspects for blockchain platform creators is accurately predicting people’s behaviour. That would be a relatively easy task if humans had a consistency, rational behaviour or an overarching logic in how they go about their lives.

Good news is that there is an entire field studying this – human irrationality and how to incentivise humans – very phenomenon, including Nobel laureates Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and former Clinton advisor Cass Sunstein, who discovered that changing the default setting from “opt-in” to “opt-out” on things such as organ donation on a driver’s license and 401k contributions at work could dramatically improve uptake. This seemingly little change tapped on our Default Bias, enabling individuals to adjust their contribution levels (to retirement), but even the flummoxed novice who did nothing is at least socking some money away for retirement and taking advantage of company matching payments.

It turns out that we have a huge number of cognitive biases and knowing these and knowing how to go around these or nudge or incentivise us to act in desired ways is the key to understanding and predicting human behaviour accurately. One of most commonly-observed cognitive biases is loss aversion. Loss aversion derives from our innate motive to prefer avoiding losses rather than achieving similar gains. Kahneman and Tversy conducted an experiment asking people if they would accept a bet based on the flip of a coin. If the coin came up tails the person would lose $100, and if it came up heads, they would win $200. The results of the experiment showed that on average people needed to gain about twice (1.5x – 2.5x) as much as they were willing to lose in order to proceed forward with the bet (meaning the potential gain must have been at least twice as much as the potential loss). However, from traditional economic theory perspective, one’s risk appetite to losing or gaining $100 is the same.

The most tangible of incentives on blockchain platforms are digital tokens. Tokens usually represent currency, digital asset or some form of value in given blockchain system. Getting incentives right is fundamental to network growth, reflected in increased token adoption that yields positive network effects. Once this flywheel gets started, it serves as the ongoing funding mechanism for future development. Without it, the network cannot achieve self-sustainability. The value of the community and the token is what incentivises new members to join initially. If that value is off, new people don’t join and a death spiral begins. Once members are in, there needs to be a sustainable and growing value in the system to keep them using the tokens, participating in the community and helping the system grow. While token was the allure, the incentive system needs to account for conflicting interests of different types of users, system changes and perceived value and expectations from the system and, most importantly, it cannot necessarily based on the value of token itself. There are a few systems that help evaluate blockchain projects, including T3CG framework which is pretty solid.

Cryptoeconomics is hard as it requires expertise and mastery of mechanism design, contract theory, game theory, behavioral economics, public policy, macro-economics, and a solid understanding of decentralized technology in order to the design robust, sustainable and valuable blockchain economies. Hence is boils down to designing  incentive systems based on known biases – default bias, endowment effectbandwagon effect, etc –  and other factors, including cultural values, public policies, system-specific goals.

I am very excited by potential of blockchain systems but also humbled by the realization that we have just scratched the surface on how to build optimal blockchain systems.

Musings on Marx, capitalism, austerity and future

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.

This is Marx quoting in The Communist Manifesto. It seems to describe well what is happening now in the world.

Occupy Wall Street is the visible symptom of societal sickness induced by “bad” capitalism. It highlights the fact that more and more people are starting to think Karl Marx was right about unregulated/loosely regulated markets. An image below does a pretty good notional mapping.

Marx welcomed capitalism’s self-destruction. He was confident that a popular revolution – a grassroots revolution of proletariat spreading from city to city – would occur and bring about a communist system, an egalitarian and fair system where everyone will have his/her chance to be heard, get an employment and lead a happy life.

He understood well how capitalism destroys its own social base, the middle-class. A self-sustaining middle-class is essential for any healthy and happy society. That was the greatest contribution of Henry Ford, who created the middle-class America.   As economists realize, middle-classes are the ones being most affected by bad economic practices on corporate/institutional levels and it is their movements that are currently showing their lion’s head.

Marx considered capitalism as the most revolutionary economic system in history. Hunter-gatherers persisted in their way of life for thousands of years, while agricultural and feudal societies have been in existence many hundreds of years. In contrast, capitalism (with its early roots in 9th century Muslim world) is evolutionary. It transforms everything it touches, making and unmaking societies,  industries, markets and companies.

Most importantly, capitalism also destroyed the very way of life which it preached and depended upon. In the UK, the US and other developed countries over the past 20-30 years, industries have stalled, markets stagnated, job security gone away and jobs outsourced or discontinued.

More and more people live from day to day, with little idea of what the future may bring. 18th-19th century middle-classes used to think their lives unfolded in an orderly progression. It seems no longer to be the case with middle classes of 21st century. There seems to be no upwards stairs. We’d be happy if we could stay on the same level.

While capitalism created and accelerated the industrial revolution, its detrimental effect, especially during last few decades, has given to most people unstable, precarious lives. Admittedly, middle-class incomes are higher then 100 years ago, but there is little effective control over the course of our lives/careers.

Unfortunately, Western governments are quite reactive. Their panacea to the crisis is austerity. Even rich from the West now ask for austerity. They don’t realize one important thing. In Victorian times, the rich could afford to relax provided they were conservative in how they invested their money. It is no longer possible in 21st century, where even the rich get bankrupt from one day to another even without any risky undertakings.

Austerity is a band-aid, a short-term relief against current economic and social sickness afflicting most of the developed world. In a time of zero-interest rates, spending/consuming cuts, melting savings, rising prices, and contracting industries, thriftiness and austerity will yield a negative return on money and over time erode the accumulated/preserved capital.

In a society that is being continuously transformed by market forces (capitalism), one cannot abide by or get used to traditional values (and life standards) for long time, risking to end up on the scrapheap. It’s a person who borrows heavily, who starts a business, who goes on creating jobs and initiatives that survives and prospers. That is the foundation of Schumpeter‘s ideology.

Being sympathetic to Marx’s cause but going one step further, Schumpeter realized the inherent self-destructive nature of capitalism and preached entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation to counter this effect by creating and recreating new economic values, in turn resulting in societal values and traditions. Schumpeter, while thinking that capitalism will cause its own demise, didn’t think it would be by means of communism. His idea, “creative destruction,” explains well why grassroots instability takes place and what the potential cure might look like.

Our single-minded focus on the expectations market will continue driving us from crisis to crisis to ruin—unless we act now.

Says Roger Martin, author of Fixing the Game. Perhaps, he is right. Perhaps, we need to lower our expectations. Perhaps, we need to love what we already have rather than want what we don’t. That and “creating incentives for individuals to act in mutually beneficial and productive ways” (Schumpeter would agree) is what might save the Western world.

Perhaps, there is still hope.