Call it what you will, incentives are what get people to work harder.

Nikita Khrushchev

Back in the good old days when the great unwashed could simply be shipped off to the colonies with nary a second thought, transportation of convicts was in the hands of private companies. These companies were compensated based on the number of prisoners shipped. As long as they were signed and sealed, no one cared over much if they were delivered and a depressing percentage of prisoners perished on-board these dreadful hulks. Eventually, the government, realising they were being short-changed and running the risk of running out of forced labourers, changed the metric from prisoners shipped to the number who arrived alive.

In the former Soviet Union, glass plant managers were rewarded according to tonnage of sheet glass they produced. Inevitably, plants churned out sheet glass so thick as to be useless. Right, thought the apparatchiks, we’ll sort out you bourgeois shirkers! And changed the rules so that square meterage of glass produced was rewarded instead. How did our put-upon factory managers respond? Yep, you guessed it; they produced glass so thin and fragile it would shatter as soon as you looked at it.

Often, our response to a perceived difficulty is offer incentives. Students misbehaving and not working hard enough? Vivo Miles! Teachers not working their fingers down to bloody bone? Performance Related Pay!

If no incentive is offered we’re in the terrifying position of simply relying on people’s desire to do the ‘right thing’. But, if people are properly incentivised, the reasoning goes, they will act with motivation, determination and efficiency. And generally speaking, most teachers do want to do the right thing. We’re nice like that. Rare indeed is the teacher that chooses education as a short cut to personal wealth. Although we want to adequately remunerated for our efforts, generally speaking we teach because we want to. There aren’t many teachers holding on to exciting new methods for teaching spelling or oxbow lakes until somebody offers to pay them a little bit more.

Inevitably, schools always want to take a little bit more. They exhort us to might works by sharing values and vision, but nothing beats the simplicity of carrot and stick. But as soon as an incentive is offered, people change. We tend, unerringly, to respond to incentives by doing what is in our best interests. We respond to the letter of the initiatives rather than their spirit; we ignore the intention and focus solely on the incentive.

Consider for instance the plight of pupils in receipt of the Pupil Premium. Of course it’s a wonderful thing that we should seek to narrow the attainment gap between the most disadvantaged and the most privileged. And it makes complete sense to scrutinise what all this public money is being spent on; we can’t have schools simply squandering it on whatever shiny baubles are offered for sale by the sharp suited consultant class. As ever, the DfE is unwilling to trust that schools will do the right thing and has let slip the attack dog of Ofsted. Schools are held to account for the gap between the achievement of their Pupil Premium students and everyone else. It’s not enough for your PPs to be doing better than the national average, or even, better than everyone else’s. You have to ensure there is no gap between different cohorts of students within your own school. And if you don’t? Simple: you require improvement, with all the Sisyphean toil this judgement will bring. This really does go on: read about some examples here.

Now, I hope no school would be so cynical but if the incentive is for schools to narrow the gap, the obvious solution is to reduce the attainment on non Pupil Premium students. Obviously no one would want this, and when I suggested the possibility to Mike Cladingbowl he looked suitably horrified, but this is logical, self-interested solution to a perverse incentive.

In his deceptively simple little book, The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions, Rolf Dobrelli offers this advice: “Good incentive systems comprise both intent and reward.” Clearly this is sage advice, but how so to do?

When managing change, we tend to focus on problems. We look at what is preventing people from behaving in the way we want them to behave rather than focussing on those instances of success. In Switch: How to change things when change is hard, Chip and Dan Heath refer to these instances of success as ‘bright spots’, and they suggest that the best way to change behaviour is to focus on these positives instead of all the frustratingly negative, err, negatives.

Most people willingly tread the path of least resistance, so if we offer incentives that make it easy to replicate these successes, we might be more likely to see the changes we want.

Here’s a suggested process we could use to interrogate whether our incentive system is likely to do what we actually want:

  1. What is the behaviour you want to change, and how exactly do you want to change it? Be specific
  2. To what extent might this behaviour be caused by the situation rather than people? What can you change first?
  3. Incentives work best when they affect emotions. How do people feel now, and how do you want them to feel?
  4. What can you take away to ensure people are not too exhausted to make the desired change? Consciously opt out of old initiatives.
  5. What examples can you find of the behaviour you want to incentivise? Grow these bright spots.
  6. How could you use the anchoring effect to make this behaviour the new norm? How can you harness the power of inertia?
  7. Is your incentive working? How do you know? What unexpected changes have occurred?

Dobrelli suggests, “If a person’s or an organisation’s behaviour confounds you, ask yourself what incentive might lie behind it. I guarantee you’ll be able to explain 90% of the cases that way. What makes up the remaining 10%? Passion, idiocy, psychosis or malice.”