Perverse incentives create perverse behavior

“Anyone else find the new Gmail interface sluggish?” The question was asked on a forum and there was a deluge of replies. “For me it's so unresponsive that I'm at a loss for words how google put this into production,” the commenter continued. “I have a modern, new computer and modern, urban internet good enough for streaming 1080p on Twitch without interruption, but I can't delete or archive an email anymore without waiting 4-6 seconds for it to complete the action.”

Why would Google do that? Why would it create such a bad experience? “Google GREATLY encourages "launches" - releasing something publicly,” a Googler explained. “And keep in mind - no penalties if it’s half baked, not working, only works on chrome, or some such nonsense! This is the norm! Why? Promotion. You cannot get promoted beyond a certain level in this place unless you "launch" something big.”

When I saw these comments, I was reminded of other conversations I’ve had with Google employees who told me the exact same thing. That Google senior management might waffle on about noble principles of making things simple and fast, but that Google culture is fast-becoming like all big company culture.

“Do you know how many bugs you need to fix to get promoted,” the Googler asked? “Infinity. No matter how many you fix, it will never get you enough "impact" for promotion. Never. How many useless redesigns do you need to launch to get promoted? ONE! Extra fun: people internally usually warn about this, complain about it, file bugs about poor performance, etc. It is ALL ignored. Most people who've been here for over a few years have given up filing bugs even. Because the reply is always the same: "you're not the target audience"! And we all know it! We all do! Some quit when they realize it, others just begin optimizing for promotion as opposed to optimizing for what is good for the user or the company. And this is how you get new gmail, for example.”

Perverse incentives and metrics create a perverse culture. All great empires rot from within. When you measure and reward production, you get production. When you measure and reward launches of new things, you get launches of new things.

I once made a presentation to a large organization about the state of their website. It sucked. 80% of the content was either useless or out-of-date. I proposed that they needed to remove that 80%. “We all agree with you,” one of the writers said, “but it’s not going to happen.” Why not, I asked? “Because if I meet my boss on Friday and she asks me what I did this week and I tell her I deleted 200 pages, she’ll look at me and say: “Nice. But what did you do? How many pages did you create?”

We must reward employees based on customer use. We must focus on the consumption, not on the production. We must measure customer effort, task completions rates, time-on-task.

Ask HN: Anyone else find the new Gmail interface sluggish?