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Immediate reward is the only agent of change


Every morning I watch a group of cyclists zipping through my lane. I can see that they have finest cycles and equipment that even a European would be envious of.

Unfortunately, I can clearly see that any health benefit that they may be getting from their first world lifestyle is lost due to third world air they are forced to breathe because of the smoke full of particulate matter rising from mounds of leaves burning around my home.

For me, these rising smoke columns have a lesson to offer for future human management, especially for India, so we really need to understand them. 

As this is the season for trees to shed leaves, overburdened Ahmedabad municipal corporation sweepers prefer to opt for the shortcut of burning them. I am absolutely sure that the sweepers are categorically told and may be even trained by AMC not to burn leaves. But, the reality on the ground is that even if AMC commissioner takes cognisance of this column and take harsh action, in all likelihood, they will be back to burning in no time.

We may like to blame the sweeper to not do his job, but the truth is that he chooses to burn the litter instead of following the directions given by the system because burning reduces his work, while he finds no gain in addressing the system’s objective of reducing pollution.

We like it or not, sweeper’s logic is sound as it is founded on what he has learnt from real life. India is still a developing nation after seventy years of sovereignty because we have failed in connecting people with systemic benefits.

As a nation, we are prone to believe in idealism and hence we keep trying to use motivation (now even nationalism) as a way to solve this problem. But the harsh reality is, humans are carrot-and-stick creatures. So, those who really want to bring a change have no other option but to offer direct benefit of the change to the individuals who are expected to change.

The problem with a reward-based incentivising is that it leads to a cost to the system that can make it unviable. But, truth is, if we want a change, we have no other choice. So, it is all about working out the right scale of reward and follow it.

The real key to management in India is to build mechanisms that allow visible gain from following systems. If we need sweepers to stop burning leaves, we need to incentivise it directly. A direct gain of even a rupee would work better than hundred hours of training using motivational speeches about benefits of clean air.

As the virus of virtue of selfishness spreads, modern policy makers will have to do some real tightrope walking if they want results. So, accurate cost-benefit analysis will hold key for future human management, for which we will need hard data and mathematical modellers capable of quantifying the seemingly intangible. 

Thankfully, we have a strange ally provided by nature for this, as there is a psychological chink in human brain. Any gain that is offered as a freebie, however small, has a strange power to attract humans. So, a system designed around this human weakness will make it possible to build a cost-effective reward policy without going overboard with rewarding. 

As India needs a lot of things to change, we need to consciously reposition our HR training to make it have visible and direct gain for individuals. 

People are not going to change by motivational speeches of intangible long term collective gain. They need it in cash and now! Let us hope our policy makers recognise this truth. 

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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