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How Much Ambiguity Is In Your Incentive Program?


I’m a big fan of rewarding behavior over results.  Results are the um… result of behaviors. 

What happens is dependent on what we do.  Reward what someone can control ie: their behavior – and if they are the right behaviors you should, over time, get the results you want.  If not, then either A.) you’re rewarding the wrong behaviors, or B.) Karma is a bitch. 

It’s a cause and effect world for most of us.


Maybe, just maybe, we should allow for new behaviors – not just the ones we’ve identified as having a causal connection to the results we want.

In other words – make allowances for experimentation outside the “rules” of the program.

Experiments = New/Better Results

I started thinking about this today when I saw a share on google buzz (yeah, I know – it’s still around) by Franny Oxford ( @frannyo on twitter) – a smart HR person I follow – linking to a post called: “Every Child is a Scientist.”

The post is about how ambiguity increased curiosity and that traditional instructor methods may actually dampen our desire to explore and experiment.  I love stuff like this. 

The final paragraph of the post sums up the concept…

“The moral is that parents and teachers must navigate the fine line between giving kids a taste of knowledge – the universe is not all mystery – while at the same time preserving a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty. When we explain things to kids, we shouldn’t pretend that we have all the answers. We shouldn’t turn science class into a dry recitation of facts that must be memorized, or only conduct experiments in the classroom in which the results are known in advance. Because it’s the not knowing – that tang of doubt and possibility – that keeps us playing with the world, eager to figure out how it works.(emphasis mine.)

Allow for Ambiguity in Business

If you’ve followed my advice when designing incentive programs you would have identified the results you want, identified the behaviors that drive those results and rewarded them accordingly. 

Unfortunately, you’d be missing a big opportunity (or should I say, I’ve been missing a big opportunity.)

In ADDITION to rewarding the behaviors you’ve identified… reward the behaviors you haven’t.

Why?  How?

Leave room for ambiguity.  Maybe it’s a category of behavior – like say generating leads.  You’ve probably got a process you’ve used successfully in the past.  Reward folks for using it and doing the things you think will drive leads.  But also reward someone who tries twitter, or Linkedin or Facebook to drive leads.  See where that goes.

Communicate to your audiences that you don’t know EVERYTHING – and THEY have the ability – and more importantly the PERMISSION to experiment. 

When the new behaviors don’t work – advertise what isn’t working (and the reward for failing.)  When they do work, incorporate them into the main program rule structure. 

CAVEAT:  Don’t make the rewards for experimenting too rich.  The goal here is to give permission and a nudge in the direction of experiments.  Too much reward for experiments will just shift the focus from the behaviors you’ve spent time validating to behaviors that probably have no chance of succeeding ( hey, what about crystals and pyramid power?)


If this research is correct (and intuitively I think it is) then putting a category in your incentive program for “experimentation” would be a good thing.  Keep rewarding behaviors you think drive the results you want but give your audience rewards to test and try new behaviors. 

You just might be surprised as the results of those experiments.

I guess you’re never too old to learn new stuff.


Originally posted on on Incentive Intelligence

8 Responses to “How Much Ambiguity Is In Your Incentive Program?”

  1. davidburkus says:

    Timely post. I actually just had a discussion with my Organizational Behavior class about rewarding behavior since sometimes the results, or the way to produce them, aren’t clear.

  2. Paul Hebert says:

    Glad it was helpful… thanks for engaging here.  

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