I was walking along, and I saw just this hell of a big moose turd, I mean it was a real steamer! So I said to myself, “self, we’re going to make us some moose turd pie.” So I tipped that prairie pastry on its side, got my sh*t together, so to speak, and started rolling it down towards the cook car: flolump, flolump, flolump. I went in and made a big pie shell, and then I tipped that meadow muffin into it, laid strips of dough across it, and put a sprig of parsley on top. It was beautiful, poetry on a plate, and I served it up for dessert.

Here’s one of the thorniest incentive problems known to man.  In an organization there is a job that has to be done.  And not just anybody can do it well, you really need to find the guy who is best at it.  The livelihood of the organization depends on it.  But the job is no fun and everyone would like to get out of doing it.  To make matters worse, performance is so subjective that no contract can be written to compensate the designee for a job well done.

The core conflict is exemplified in a story by Utah Phillips about railroad workers living out in the field as they work to level the track.  Someone has to do the cooking for the team and nobody wants to do it.  Lacking any better incentive scheme they went by the rule that if you complained about the food then from now on you were going to have to do the cooking.

You can see the problem with this arrangement.  But is there any better system?  You want to find the best cook but the only way to reward him is to relieve him of the job.  That would be self defeating even if you could get it to work.  You probably couldn’t because who would be willing to say the food was good if it meant depriving themselves of it the next time?

A simple rotation scheme at least has the benefit of removing the perverse incentive.  Then on those days when the best cook has the job we can trust that he will make a good meal out of his own self interest.  He might even volunteer to be the cook.

But it might be optimal to rule out volunteering too.  Because that could just bring back the original incentive problem in a new form.  Since ex ante nobody knows who the best cook is, everyone will set out to prove that they are incapable of making a palatable meal so that the one guy who actually can cook, whoever he is, will volunteer.

It may help to keep the identity of the cook secret.  Then when a capable cook actually has the job he can feel free to make a good meal without worrying that he will be recruited permanently.  It will also lower the incentive for the others to make a bad meal because nobody will know who to exclude in the future.

Even if there is no scheme that really solves the incentive problem, the freedom to complain is essential for organizational morale.

Well, this big guy come into the mess car, I mean, he’s about 5 foot forty, and he sets himself down like a fool on a stool, picked up a fork and took a big bite of that moose turd pie. Well he threw down his fork and he let out a bellow, “My God, that’s moose turd pie!”

“It’s good though.”