Today, we have our Vice President of Product Development, Nishesh Mehta, talking about what he’s learned about Incentives since he’s been here thus far. Really fascinating topic, with implications across many sectors. Why do people do what they do? Why do valvemen give us information? I’ll let Nishesh take it from here
NextDrop was featured as one of the practioners at the ACM Dev 2013. At the conference, we witnessed some of the most innovative ideas in action that married crowd-sourcing, ICT with the mobile platform. One of the questions I was asked most often was, “So why do the valvemen work with you? How have you crafted your incentive program to get them to give you accurate information?”
To answer the question, we have to go back to September 2012. I had recently moved back to India to join NextDrop. My charge was to set up an incentive program that would convert each valvemen into human sensors – accurate, timely and most importantly consistent. Over the last 6 months, we have been able to devise a program that has achieved good results. About 70% of the valvemen working with NextDrop in Hubli report water supply timings accurately.
The incentive program that we designed works like a frequent flier program. For each correct notification, valvemen accrue a certain number of points which can be redeemed at the end of the month in the form of rewards such as jackets, T-shirts, petrol, ration etc. Essentially, they can get anything except cash.
What have I learnt in the process of designing this incentive program? I am going to summarize these in a multi-part series. Here goes Part I.
1) The signalling effect is much stronger than actual incentives – When valvemen can see the rewards being given to other valvemen for good performance while they are left out, it creates a huge “I also want it” effect. In economics, it is called the signalling. What we learnt is this signalling effect has a disproportionately larger impact on valvemen performance than the actual incentive. It is also a powerful attraction to get new valvemen into the fold. Consequently, all incentives are given in a group setting. It not only enables the signalling effect but also gives you credibility that you will deliver on your promise of the incentives.
2) They must decide on the methodology to score points – This is crucial for any system to work. If they perceive the points system to be biased, they will never buy into the incentive program.
3) You want them to fight over points – Once they trust the points system, however, you want them to fight over points. You will be at the receiving end of a lot of flak, a few disparaging remarks even. The questions may sound accusatory such as – “How did I get so few points?” or “Why did he get so many and I received so few?”. When you start to hear those – you know you have traction. You have their ear. Now is the time to fill them with the sweet music of rewards! The worst thing for an incentive program would be if everyone ignored it.
4) Who is afraid of unions – One of the first meetings I had when I started was with the union leader of the valvemen in the city. What a meeting it was! If I said, I came out with a bloody nose that would be putting it mildly. However, we have learnt that having a union can be really helpful. A union is a great way of organizing the valvemen and it provides a readymade chosen few who could then influence all the valvemen to work with you. Once we convinced the union leader on the incentive program it has been a lot easier to function with the valvemen. It also provides you a new voice when there is any sort of disgruntlement on the other side.
5) You need institutional backing at least in name – In our case the valvemen are contracted by the city water board. Being the primary employer, they hold sway with the valvemen and are consequently cast in the main villain’s role in their saga. Their influence however is crucial here. We developed a feedback loop from the water board to the valvemen. The water board now monitors valvemen performance through the same messaging system that informs the customers. As a result, if a valvemen didn’t send correct notifications, they would hear about it from their water board supervisors. Even though it is primary a verbal warning or praise, it goes a long way in cementing the importance of sending in timely notifications to the NextDrop system.
6) Are you funny and charismatic? – An important note in conclusion; No incentive program can work without some old school charm. I continuously feel that the role of charisma is grossly under-estimated in enhancing productivity. Here is a perfect example. None of the ideas on the incentive program would have worked without a team that has been able to charm their way into the valvemen’s daily lives.
Here ends the first part on what I learnt while creating the incentive program. In part II, I will throw in some field experiments based on behavioural economics, game theory and some highly original ideas that we have come up with to structure the incentives. In the meantime if you all have any ideas you always thought would work and are itching to find out, here’s your ready laboratory.