05 May 2017

Consulting, Incentivization, and Your Job

My friend Adam likes to remind me on a regular basis that how you are incentivized drives your behavior. There must be a hundred quips in the world about incentiveization, and a lot of thoughts on motivation in general.  Also don't forget the internally motivated v. externally motivated angle. 

I'm very self driven. I can force my self to do almost anything and do it until it is done, even if it isn't much fun. Income taxes come to mind; I hate them and I always procrastinate, and yet, when the time comes, I always get them done. One thing I've noticed in the professional world is that often times our jobs and our immediate tasks aren't well aligned with our incentives. In some cases the alignment is only very general, do your job and get paid. For some very loose definition of 'your job'. I've seen plenty of 'just show up' and get paid behavior too, but thats a different thing. 

So for consultants there is a very interesting conundrum. I think it might actually be how consulting got a bad name in some parts of the world. Very often the incentives of a consultant are misaligned with the needs of a client. In a strict sense, an employee of an organization is motivated to behave as their incentives indicate; so if you regional manager promise a bonus for the most blog articles published, you tend to spend your time publishing blog articles and not paying attention to your customers. 

I once worked for a consulting organization where my boss would layout quarterly goals for each of us. They were often things like number of articles published, customers visited, answers provided in on-line forums, example/demo applications produced, and occasionally, 7-digit deals closed. Each quarter you could earn as much as $10,000 in bonuses (or possibly more) by making your goals. I took full advantage of this situation by working extra hours to make sure I did all the things on the list if possible. I couldn't control 7-digit deals, but I could write articles, spend hours coming the user-groups and answering questions, and crank out demo apps with the best of them. Needless to say I did well on the bonus receipts. 

What were the consequences of my behavior? Well for one, I frequently dropped the ball, or did less than 110% for our customers. I frequently negotiated with the sales team to avoid going on client calls in order to get my bonus work done. Once, I got a regional VP to have my boss grant my bonus without doing the work, because he wanted to serve the customer more than he didn't want to pay the bonus. 

What I'm getting at is that my behavior was strongly effected by how I was being incentivized. From talking to others I get that their behavior is too. At least I'm not alone. What are the consequences then of poor incentivization in an organization of consultants. What happens when you ask your consultants to also take on matters like internal personnel management or extracurricular teaching, speaking, demoing, and sales work. Typically the customer gets the short end of the stick. I think this problem compounds itself when paired with the 40 hour work week.

For thirteen of the past seventeen years I've traveled for work. In most cases at least four days a week. I had plenty of time to work on extras at night and plenty of time to get things done when the client didn't need me, so I hardly noticed any pressures on my personal life. I also got paid for every hour of it, so the incentives were built right in. Adding in Netflix and DVRs and I really had no excuses to not work 60 hour weeks. 

Enough about me, what about the other people in the world who aren't work-a-holics and who don't want a lifestyle of continuous labor followed by bing watching Mad Men on the weekends? Well, if you are a consultant/contractor you have made a significant commitment to your client and you need to honor that commitment. If you cannot, you need to let the client know that you can't and you need to be very comfortable with there response. That response is likely to be something you don't want by the way, something like, 'We're giving notice on your contract.' So be prepared. 

There is a way out though. You can choose to focus on your client and your commitments to them and push back on the incentives. Point out to the person devising the incentives that they have asked you to ignore the customer. Make sure they are comfortable with that, and make sure they understand the possible consequences. If they are happy, and you can be happy, I guess the customer doesn't matter much. However, if you are like me, you'll push back on your boss hard, and tell them that you aren't serving the customer by doing whatever silly thing they asked for. This of course might put you in a position of having to quit or find a new boss at least, but you (or I'd) be happier serving the customer.