It is human nature (and animal nature too) to pick what is “easy”. In fact our entire life is a tradeoff between “easy” and “quality”. We would go as “easy” as possible before we hit the limit of what we consider a “quality” life. Getting an education to work a desk job instead of plowing the fields. Getting the lowest priced items (lower price means less of our hard earned money, means less time spend working to earn that product) that don’t dissapoint us in quality. Watching TV instead of listening to radio. Both are equally easy, but TV provides better quality of an experience. On and on and on.
In fact, the above trade-off is so reliable, human systems are designed entirely based on it. Employees have an incentive to get a better “quality” salary (aka higher) if they trade off some of their “easy” for slightly more responsibility. In a lawless environment, stealing is much “easier” than working, so laws, and police, and prisons are enacted to make it “harder” to do harm than to do good. The success of democracy and our own government depends on keeping human nature in check. Power is “easy” to abuse. If you could retain and gain infinite amounts of status and money, why would you give it away willingly? Therefore terms are enacted, constitutional rules are put in place, and abusers are made an example of, to increase society’s ability to get “quality” of leadership. Straightforward, isn’t it?
Things get tricky when you have to design new human systems. 12 or so years ago I had to implement a coupon system for a small business selling bread. You could get a free or a discounted bread with a coupon. Brilliant! We called a printer, got the coupons. Done. Except, our competitor called the same printer to ask for our own coupons to get our own free bread. Fail. I moved the coupon-making process in house, went through a few iterations of paper and ink hacking and came up with a repeatable coupon with hidden anti-forgery indicators nobody but me and the owners knew about. Coupons went live again. Sure enough, a year passed and we caught an employee of 10 years red handed with the coupons. His responsibility was to drive bread to stores and to collect cash and coupons on the way home and he figured out he could sneak in his home-made replica coupons for some “easy” daily cash. “Easy” by means of stealing or other unethical behavior flows like crud in clean water through the pipes of a human system (any law, any incentive program, any game or product). If there is a hole in your process that can be exploited, it WILL be exploited sooner or later. The hard part is to make sure all holes are filled and all pipes are pointing through desirable behaviors that drive the system forward, not out of business.
What is even more important to realize, is that when an otherwise ethical and moral person is exposed to a wide gaping hole in a human system they can and do get advantage of, they learn a lesson that cannot be unlearned. (Watch the Shawshank Redemption if you don’t believe me.) If that is your system they learned from, congratulations, you have just turned an honest person into a small-time crook. If an undercooked law or system educated one person how to cheat for their advantage, it probably did so for many and if that is the case, should the system designer (or legislator) be held morally responsible? I learned how that feels 12 years ago. I saw it happening in mass scale for years of watching really, really bad human systems applied during communistic rule in Eastern Europe that created rampant corruption still alive today. I wish this were a mandatory lesson for legislators writing laws and regulations, and for product managers and entrepreneurs worldwide. Make it really, really hard for people to do harm in any and every way possible from or within your human system (preferably before you go live), and make it really easy for them to do the right thing. Simple, yet ridiculously difficult to implement, if you have to think of every creative way to hack your own system in advance (engineers do that for software already, business and political system designers may need more practice). One more thing: once a human knows and gets used to an “easy” of sorts, it is hard to impossible to ever take that “easy” away without a fight. Just an FYI.
Knowing the above lesson, I keep asking myself questions about things I see on a daily basis. What happens to startups if it gets “easier” for us to raise capital than to get paying customers? What on earth would motivate a sane politician to see firing thousands of government workers and programs (that many of his voters might find “easier”) as “easier” than infinitely increasing government debt he won’t be responsible for? Ask on.
Posted by: Diana Zink on Thursday, 7th Mar, 2013
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