Give the monkey a banana; Why real change is hard for business groups.

Give the monkey a banana

Living organisms have elaborate mechanisms to help them survive and even thrive. When these mechanisms turn to the detriment of the organism psychologists call them “mal-adaptive”. These once helpful behaviors often get in the way when an organism is trying to adapt to new circumstances. Our software organizations behave a lot like living organisms. They have a lot of built in regulation to keep the running in a particular way. This is one reason change is so hard.

Rewards are key

People and organizations will do what you reward (and avoid what you punish.) So first, make sure your rewards are in line with your real goals. I can’t count the number of times I have heard a manager say “Quality is Job 1” then punish people for missing deadlines. You simply have to have your rewards system aligned with your goals before you can make a change.

Then expect things to get worse, a lot worse, for a while. This is because of something called “extinction burst”.

Why results are often counter intuitive

Imagine a monkey. Imagine that every time the monkey pushed a button we gave it a banana. If the banana machine clogs or runs out, the monkey will push the button a lot. Maybe even whack it with a rock a few times. People do the same thing with broken elevators and cross walk signals. Even if you switch from bananas to electric shocks the monkey will hit the button more (for a time) than when it was giving the reward. This fact of behavior can make changing how you ship software in an organization very difficult. If a group tries to switch focus from deadlines to quality, things aren’t going to happen overnight. In the past, we got a banana for shipping on time. Suddenly you take away the banana. That doesn’t mean people will stop playing to the deadlines right away. In fact, in a moment of panic, people will probably invent deadlines to hit.

Hang in there, real change can come.

Karen Pryor's book “Don’t Shoot The Dog” is a must read if you really want to understand how this kind of conditioning affects people. I highly recommend the book. The fact is our workplaces, even though they are a collection of individuals, respond a lot like a person or an organism. Just because you take away the banana, the monkeys won’t stop pushing the button.

Managers try to change an organization using the bananas, and get results that aren’t intuitive. “We took away the reward and doubled the punishment and they just kept doing the same thing. They did it even more in fact. What the heck is wrong with these people?” I have heard them say.

When you are trying to make a change in behaviors, you have to be prepared to ride out a rough patch. Time passes differently for organizations than people. Remember the monkey. He could push the button and get a banana right now. In business it usually takes months to push the button and get the banana. So just like it might take a monkey a few weeks to stop trying that old banana button once in a while, it’s going to take your organization quite a few reward cycles to extinguish old behavior and foster new ones.