Designing Incentives

There are those who believe that people’s attitudes “are-what-they-are” and can’t be changed.

Then, there are those, like me, that believe attitudes can be changed. I’m not claiming it’s easy.

But, I’m a big believer in the proposition that we are products of the combined influences of nature and nurture. And, with the proper tweaking of both, a person’s previously-held attitudes may be revised.

freak - attitudesA simple model that undergirds the way I think about these influences in action is the one in the figure.

Attitudes are most often formed and reinforced by behaviors.

Call them habits, daily routines, spiritual or work practices…whatever.

Behaviors, in turn, are formed and reinforced by structures. Call these the incentives, group norms, and other environmental factors, e.g., geographic location, architecture, apparel, and the like. If you want to change attitudes, change the structures.

This model was reinforced by a quick read of a book that’s been out for a bit called Think Like a Freak, by the authors of the similarly titled Freakonomics, Levitt & Dubner.

Much of the book addresses the discipline of designing the right incentive scheme to change behavior (and ergo, attitudes). Incentives, to my thinking, are powerful environmental “tools” that can be manipulated.

motivation carrotSome of the pearls of wisdom that Levitt & Dubner offer about incentives include:

  • Figure out what people really care about, not what they say they care about
  • Incentivize them on the dimensions that are valuable to them but cheap for you to provide
  • Pay attention to how people respond; if their response surprises or frustrates you, learn from it and try something different
  • Whenever possible, create incentives that switch the frame from adversarial to cooperative
  • Never, ever think that people will do something just because it is the “right” thing to do

One pearl that particularly spoke to my personal experience had to do with “gaming the system.” This was a constant problem for Appconomy, a venture-backed startup largely based in China in which I’m a founding shareholder.

Levitt & Dubner’s advice is to know that some people will do everything they can to game the system, finding ways to win that you could never have imagined. Thus, if only to keep yourself sane, try to applaud their ingenuity rather than curse their greed. To which I say “Amen!”

freak - bookThink Like a Freak closes with an instructive, albeit clear-eyed, section on the subject of “How to persuade people who don’t want to be persuaded.” In a nutshell, here are the six most important points they say to keep in mind:

  1. First, understand how hard persuasion is.
  2. Make clear, it’s not about me; it’s about you.
  3. Don’t pretend your argument is perfect.
  4. Acknowledge the strengths of your opponent’s argument
  5. Keep the insults to yourself
  6. Tell stories, they capture our attention, making them great for teaching

I like the story-telling advice. It’s an emotional buddy to the logical tool of incentive design…the nature “yin” to the nurture “yang.”

So, the next time you are thinking deeply about how to incentivize some sort of change – whether it’s with your teenager or a customer call-to-action – make sure to spend at least an equal amount of time on the storytelling part as the incentive design part. Good luck!

Bedtime Storytelling Tips

blog-bedtime-stories-girl-daddyI don’t claim to be an international authority (just a household one), but after a few years of telling bedtime stories to my kids, here are some pointers for you to consider that have worked for me.

  1. Settle the kids down before telling the story. A bedtime story has two objectives:
    • First is to fix their attention on something fun, interesting, and preferably positive right before they go to sleep, so that they (just like adults) can take their minds off of the activities of the day like school work, sports, play with friends, etc.
    • Second, is to make them drowsy and ready to go to sleep…if they aren’t settled down, it will be harder to get them drowsy.
  2. Be animated, but keep your voice low. Otherwise you defeat point #1 above. You’d be surprised at the range of volume and animation you can get, by still keeping your voice low the whole time.
  3. Don’t try to fit too much into one story. Keep the stories at about 4-6 minutes. It’s quite okay to continue stories on for weeks. Lyla and Bendle continued on for a couple of years.
  4. Not to belabor the point, but there is no question in my mind that storytelling is an important, unique opportunity to – as a parent or guardian – have a conversation with children that allows you to impart to them your beliefs, values, and other ideas you hold dear.

Bottomline: Storytelling is a great teaching time and I encourage you to use it to weave in the things that are important to you – whether it is respect for others, balance in life, spiritual belief, curiosity, courage…you name it!  Have fun!!

My Kickstarter Pledges

I’ve participated in four Kickstarter campaigns to date, for which I spent $1,368 total.  Based upon this modest dataset, here are my observations:

  • The popularity of a campaign in no way assures its success.
  • Products that are first-time-to-market, at scale, are (…surprise!) likely to be flawed and perform poorly, if at all.  Actually, when you think about it, that shouldn’t really be a surprise.
  • Creative works delivered in conventional media (books, recordings, film, paintings, etc.) will “perform” but their performance will only be as good as the creative talent behind them.  Thus, the workmanship risk you are taking isn’t on the packaging or product “operation” but on the creative quality that imbues it.
  • A service is more likely to deliver a better experience, because the campaign producer can augment it, right down to the last moment.
  • And – proving the cliché “some things never change” – proven product or service innovators are safer bets than first-time innovators.

Name: The Porthole kickstarter - porthole

Description: A simple and beautiful infusion vessel that can be used for cocktails, oils, teas, or any infusion imaginable.

Goal: $28,500 Pledged: $736,112 Backers: 4,270

Funded: Sept 4, 2012

My pledge level: $175 for TWO black Portholes along with a seasonal cocktail recipe from the Aviary. US shipping included. Estimated delivery, Oct 2012

Experience Summary: It was delayed multiple times, arrived a year late, leaks profusely no matter how much or little we adjust the device.  It’s visually lovely, but a complete failure functionally.  It currently adorns our kitchen counter as an empty display.  We’ve discussed putting layers of colored sand in it for display or maybe making it the most fashionable ant farm ever outside of Toys R Us.

Name: Embracing Disruption kickstarter - embracing

Description: A manifesto about disruptive innovation and the cloud revolution.

Goal: $5,000 Pledged: $5,886 Backers: 64

Funded: Nov 9, 2012

My pledge level: $128 for SILVER LEVEL SPONSORSHIP: Your name, business, and twitter handle listed as Silver Level Sponsor in the back of our book, ebook, and website. + T-Shirt Level + Four Book Level + Sticker Pack Level + Early Access Level.  Estimated delivery, Mar 2013

Experience Summary: I knew Nathan and had collaborated on blog post with him previously, so I knew that he was a technical talent.  He and his co-authors delivered what they said they would, when they would.  The electronic copy was available on time, with the printed copies received a month later.

We are especially pleased that the team made the product available to others via an open source distribution strategy, via the Embracing Disruption website.  A satisfying conclusion that we were happy to support.

Name: Light Wing Trainer: Impossibly light Tyvek paper shoes kickstarter - lightwing

Description: Unbelievable Testing Laboratory has created Tyvek® paper shoes weighing in at 150g.

Goal: $15,000 Pledged: $142,197 Backers: 2,178

Funded: Aug 1, 2013

My pledge level: $65 for LIGHT WING 2nd MOVERS – Despite being a bit slow, we have an awesome deal for you, you are still able to grab a pair our limited edition shoes! Get yourself one pair of limited edition LIGHT WING PENCILs. (Suggested Retail: $68). We will also throw in one Tyvek wallet. Estimated delivery, Aug 2013

Experience Summary: After providing after converting my American size shoe to match up with the Chinese manufacturing, the shoes delivered were still too tight by a half-size or more; plus, they make a squeaky, rustling sound like you are walking around in newspaper, when you have them on.

I gave them to my daughter, who has tinier feet and is cooler than me.  I figure she’ll use them to shuffle around in doing garden work.

The whole thing reminded me of the flower-child, crafty projects of the 1960s. A laudable idea, but one that probably won’t be commercially ready until the 3rd or 4th iteration.  I wouldn’t recommend the shoes to anyone, except for the pure novelty factor.

Name: The Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint IMG_5122

Description: Human beings who are addicted to Blood. Funny, Sexy and Bloody. A new kind of love story (and not a remake of “Blacula”).

Goal: $1,250,000 Pledged: $1,418,910 Backers: 6,421

Funded: Aug 21, 2013

My pledge level: $1,000 for You Will Be An Extra In Our Film. Estimated delivery, Sept 2014.

Experience Summary:  Awesome, through and through.  I got to spend most of a day on set with Spike Lee, took direction from him, watched him in action set up and film multiple shots, took multiple photos with him, took a slow, hour-long private tour of his 40 Acres and a Mule studio in Brooklyn.

It was worth every penny!! The one slightly unnerving moment was that within days of the project funding, I received a notice that the filming would be within weeks!  But, the timing all worked out, with the help of a little vacation time and some airline frequent flyer miles.

The actual film, currently titled “The Sweet Blood of Jesus” is in post-production with a release expected in 2014.  If you see me, it’ll be in the Martha’s Vineyard bar scene near the beginning of the movie.

Recommended China Blogroll

US and ChinaHere are some of the blogs, journals, and other online publications I follow, all in English, to keep a modest finger on the pulse of the China tech community:

Technode – a full-on legit tech publication, founded by a terrific guy, Dr. Gang Lu, that recently partnered with Techcrunch — multiple posts per day, breaking news, etc.

Techrice – managing edited by a part-time blogger, Kai Lukoff, that is a “labor of love” by him and his fellow bloggers — less frequent coverage, but still insightful

TechInAsia – great online publication; started out as a communications company Penn-Olson and quickly found a hungry readership and great niche — Steven Millward is terrific editor and very plugged in

TheNextWeb AsiaI’m a big TNW fan, reading a lot of their writers around the world; China coverage is great, led by the ever-professional, even-keeled Jon Russell

Mobisights – the tech blog of the GreatWallClub, which I view as something of the “GigaOM of China” — they run massively popular events, provide consulting services, and are uber-connectors.  The English version gets less attention than the Chinese version, compared to say Technode, but it’s still good

Appconomistthis is Appconomy’s mobile blog.  We write about the start-up scene, our competitors, interesting developments in the mobile space…and us (occasionally)! Articles tend to come in bursts, but we average a new post every 1-2 weeks — we try to keep it real, but read it and let us know…

China Internet Watch – all about the interwebs of China; geeky, but good

China Law Blog – fantastically good G2 for a tech business; in China, there are laws and there are “laws” and there are *laws* — this blog helps you understand a little bit better what you are facing

Forbes’ Silicon Asia – written by Rebecca Fannin, a long-time player in the US/China, media/tech scene; a little less in touch with the daily “on the ground” activity, but nails the important issues & trends with precision due to her great access to Asian tech titans

Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Reportwhile intended to be ear-to-the-ground reporting on all business-related activity, they cover a lot of culture and tech trends that are extremely useful

Seeing Red in Chinathis is the “real deal;” originally penned by Tom the lone-wolf foreigner (i.e., anyone who isn’t native Chinese), there are multiple regular contributors now; as gritty and true as it gets, with great observations and analysis on Chinese culture, politics, society, and more

All Roads Lead to Chinaanother good blog; penned by an academic, but definitely on-target — no ivory towers here

China Daily – I’m a big fan of propaganda and, my friends, it doesn’t get any better than the state-run, official English news daily.  As ubiquitous in China as USA Today is in America – I browse it because, well, it never hurts to know what President Xi and Premier Li are thinking about related to tech


Poetry Hatred and Love

I hated poetry in middle school.

poetry-hateJust couldn’t understand the attraction. Whereas the plotline of short stories like Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game was immediately suspenseful, the meandering prose of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 befuddled me.

What’s worse: I had to memorize the sonnet!

But, as with so many things when one ages from boy/girl to man/woman, my tastes in literature evolved.

Today, I seek out poetry in my weekly visits to the library. Not necessarily over other categories of literature, but on equal footing with a good memoir or classics novel.

poetry-bradburyI don’t remember the precise turning point. It could have been in my early 20s, when I stumbled across a book of poetry by one of my childhood author-heroes, Ray Bradbury.

I think I was stunned that the same man who could write The Illustrated Man and Dandelion Wine would also take pains (in my view) to write poetry.

After the initial shock, I bought the book. Not the greatest of poets, I thought. But, the impact had been felt. So, I went back and picked up my old college textbook of poetry and flipped through it, selectively reading where the pages landed.

I was intrigued. Still, reading poetry wasn’t part of my regular literature diet.

Until one memorable SXSW Interactive closing rant by Bruce Sterling. I think it was shortly after he had published Tomorrow Now.

I don’t know what it was going on in his personal or professional life, what he had just been witness to in recent days, or simply what particular moment of empathy had triggered a well of emotion. But, as he closed with a reading from Carl Sandburg’s monumental work The People, Yes he his voice began choking as he read.

Yet, rather than pause, take a deep breath, and carry on with his normal, ironic, acerbic sing-song, he plowed forward for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only 4-5 minutes.

Nearly at tears, nearly unable to speak, his near-wail of Sandburg’s powerful words was beyond moving. I was near the front of the room that was absolutely standing-room-only, packed to the gills.

And, as he finished the final words, the room rose up nearly simultaneously on-cue with a wave of riotous, appreciative applause – one of the most incredible standing ovations I’ve ever seen or been a part of.  I’ll never forget it.

The final turning point was during my travels to China.

poetry-dodgeWhile seeking some connection back to familiar roots one afternoon while on one of my early weeks-long extended solo trips to Shanghai, I was browsing through the available videos in iTunesU.

While browsing, I stumbled across a selection of videos from NPR’s Poetry Everywhere series, recorded at the Geraldine R. Dodge bi-annual poetry festival. What a treasure!

I watched then (and have watched dozens of time since), many of the readings by the various featured poets, with their short intros by Garrison Keillor.

But, if I could only watch one, it would be For What Binds Us, by Jane Hirshfield.

Here is the full text, if you want to linger over the words, as I have.

For What Binds Us

There are names for what binds us
Strong forces
Weak forces
Look around, you can see them

The skin that forms in a half-empty cup
Nails, rusting into the places they join
Joints, dovetailed on their own weight

The way things stay so solidly
Wherever they’ve been set down

And gravity, scientists say, is weak

And see
How the flesh grows back
Across a wound
With a great vehemence
More strong than the simple, untested surface before

There’s a name for it on horses
When it comes back
Darker and raised

Proud flesh

As all flesh is proud of its wounds
Wears them as honors, given out after battle
Small triumphs, pinned to the chest

And when two people
Have loved each other
See, how it
Is like a scar
Between their bodies’

Stronger, darker, and proud

How the black cord
Makes of them
A single fabric
That nothing can tear, or mend.

poetry-appAs a great poem should, it speaks to me on multiple levels – physically, emotionally, intellectually.

So, whether or not you hated poetry as a kid like I did, if it has been awhile since you found a good poem, I urge you to insert it on your to-do list.

Like the milk commercial says, “it does a body good.”

Shoot… it’s even a little fun, with the nifty Poetry Foundation mobile app!