Thursday, November 12, 2009

# 38: The system, not the people

Today I had a really interesting experience in one of my classes that made me have an AHA! moment and put some things in perspective for me.

We were doing a simulation where the class was divided into 6 departments of a company with a few people in each department. Our goal in the simulation was to maximize profit for our own department. During the game there were 10 weeks where each department had to decide to "sell" or "buy". The payout schedule was such that if every single department decided to buy, each department made $1000. However, if one department decided not to buy, it would make $5000 while every other department lost $1000. There were multiple levels of this payout depending on how many sold or bought, but the gist is you typically made more by selling . However, if everyone sold, each department lost $1000. So for you to be profitable selling, you had to make someone else lose a lot. Are you following me?

So my department decided we wanted to work for the mutual benefit (and encourage other people to all buy too, so we would all be positive and no one would lose). Time after time we were the only department to invest. Even after we had a "company wide" meeting and every single department agreed to invest, still most firms decided to "cheat" and sell thereby gaining a lot at the expense of all the other departments.

You may wonder--what the heck does this have to do with anything? Well, I was kind of bummed by this game. I felt like people were lying, cheating and otherwise only acting in self interest when playing this game. I have felt like this in a lot of other experiences, most of which were not simulations. I have felt really lonely in caring for causes greater than myself, and have even felt angst to those who didn't share in my fight.

But after discussing the simulation I realized something really important. It wasn't the people, it was the system. They were set up with an incentive system that made them act only for themselves. They were not un-ethical or wrong in doing their best for the goal laid ahead of them, the flaw was that their incentive WAS to only think of themselves.

This makes me think a lot about the work that I do, and a lot of the societal problems our country faces right now. You know, I don't really think it is because people generally are un-ethical or greedy or just plain mean. It is because the incentive system in much of society makes it that to get ahead (or our standard of ahead), often someone most only think in their short term self interest, and not in a common interest.

So how can I be upset when someone doesn't care about something as much as I do? Or someone doesn't advocate for the common good in most situations? Well, its not the person. Its the system.

I will still always be the person who invests, who tries to change the system. And I still will try to recruit every other person I can to change it with me... but in the end it may be a little while before society finally invests in its shared future. And I am okay with that.


  1. That sounds like a rough game. If some departments bought and some departments sold, would it be more or less profitable for the company as a whole? I think that should factor in. Bring the whole company up and distribute fairer bonuses. If only our society really was that way. I like it when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, rather the parts are competing for the edge. The system is flawed...

  2. I like this one, Kristin. I do think a lot of time we blame the people when we should really be fixing the system. And I always like to think that people in general are good and honest, if imperfect. I think realizing these things can help us make a difference where we really can make a difference instead of spinning our wheels or becoming cynical.


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