Gaming the system

Lots of better people than I have written excellent posts about how, in any system, people will play it to get the best reward. It’s not just software:

  • If a teacher is rewarded according to the success rate of his classes, he has less reason to encourage less able students to stay.
  • If a council is threatened with a budget reduction if they don’t spend it all, they will find ways to spend (waste) it.
  • If a civil servant is paid according to the number of people who work for him, he has no reason to encourage efficiency amongst his staff.
  • If the money a criminal can stash away is more than he could earn in his time spent in jail, then crime pays.

And we wonder why the UK is going downhill.

These are the things which prompted me to write this, which are software-related:

  • If a customer creates separate budgets for ‘bugs’ and ‘enhancements’, the owner of the enhancements budget has no impetus to keep the bug count low.
  • If a customer writes a full specification for a story, the dev team have no reason to hold a conversation with the customer (story cards are placeholders for a conversation, not replacements for it).
  • If a bug doesn’t affect a user’s paycheck, working hours or sanity, the user has no encouragement to report it (regardless of how it might affect users in other departments).

Games are fun. I’ll try to think of some more positive examples (or steal them from comments if you’re kind enough to let me.)

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8 Responses to Gaming the system

  1. anonymous says:

    – If a company pays for overtime, people are going to work long hours when they need some extra at the end of the month.

    – If a teacher is rewarded according to the success rate of his classes, he is encouraged to make the exams easier.

    – If quality is measured based on test coverage, developers are going to write unnecessary tests to raise the stats.

    – If productivity is measured in quantity of code, developers are going to choose ways which lead them to the most verbose solutions.


  2. boryon says:

    If a company pays overtime, some employees will slack off during normal hours so they can claim overtime.

  3. sirenian says:

    Ping! you both win a prize.

    Carlos – teachers don’t set the formal exams by which success is measured, but they do make the exams easier by teaching the kids just enough to pass, rather than a giving them a full understanding of a subject. Thanks for making me think of that.

  4. anonymous says:

    Have you read “Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations” by Robert D. Austin? It’s all about such measurements: he describes how measuring in organizations often leads to dysfunctional behaviour. Sometimes not measuring at all will even be more productive (the book is based on Austin’s Ph.D. research).


    Marc Evers

  5. sirenian says:

    Thanks, I shall stick it on the list!

  6. yatimk says:

    This is a good point. Just as you can’t control what you don’t measure, whatever you measure is what will determine the results you’ll get. This seems to be a caveat to the common advice that almost any metric is better than no metric at all.


  7. anonymous says:

    – If it’s hard to fire people, business owners won’t hire as many people because mistakes are riskier.

    A possible alternative for the teacher one –
    – If a teacher is rewarded according to the learning of EVERY student, he will not neglect any student.

    On the other hand,
    – If it’s hard to fire a teacher or punish bad performance, people that don’t care about kids will be attracted to the job.

    – If an organization is rewarded for failure with more money (like a public school), it will fail at its stated task.

    – If an organization is rewarded for success with more money (like a private school), it will succeed at its stated task.

    – If you criminalize something that people want to do (like with prohibition or the drug war), people will try to earn money on the black market.

    Here’s one from P. J. O’Rourke that seems to fit:

    – When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.
    Which seems to describe pretty well the current state of Congress in the U.S.A.

    Steal these if you want 🙂

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