Show me the incentive

February 8, 2022

My co-founder Sarah Nolet has a saying that I love — show me the incentive, I’ll show you the behavior

Innovation is addictive and it’s very easy to spend all your time getting something new and cool to work. I am as guilty of this as the next person. Our superhuman ability to control atoms and cells and molecules and bits is mesmerizing and can also lead us astray.

The harder the atoms etc are to coral into action, the more tantalizing it is to not stop until they do what you tell them. This, however, involves big risks:

  • In addition to being cool, how do you know it is useful?
  • In addition to being useful, does it change things in a way that matters?
  • In addition to changing things, can you get lots of people to start doing it?

Cart, meet horse.

Humans are notoriously bad at change — they just generally like to keep doing what they are already doing.

In the early days of Observant, we saw so much wasted time by people driving farm vehicles over long distances to check things that could be checked remotely. What we didn’t appreciate was that some people love nothing more than clocking at 500km on isolated back-country roads. Ah, the serenity.

If you don’t know how you’re doing to change people’s behavior, there is little point in creating a new way of working.

Innovation and incentive design are a matched pair

Bending physics or chemistry or biology to your will is fun and cool and awesome, but ultimately futile if nobody else pays attention.

At the same time as creating new pathways to an end result, you need to spend time deeply understanding motivations and incentives. How can you also engineer incentives for the adoption of the new way to do things. Be aware that this will often need you to look past a single stakeholder and take a wider view — likely a supply-chain view. The incentive design (and corresponding business model) needs to respect the difference between the user and the beneficiary.

The 90s called and asked for its business model back

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that innovation will sell itself — especially in agriculture.

Don’t waste all your efforts creating new ways of working without spending the same amount of time designing the incentives that will underwrite its uptake.

If you match your innovation with incentive design you’re taking the best shot at changing people for the good.

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