Incentivising crunch

It’s often suggested by front-line staff in development studies that their management is aiming for crunch deliberately. As in, they know how bad it is for their team, but because they think it saves them money, they encourage it anyway. Personally, I don’t believe it’s always that cynical. Sometimes, sure, but not most times.

I genuinely believe crunch is endemic because our development process leads to a disconnect between present and future phases of the project, a failure of accountability. In the early phase, when there’s planning, people are incentivised to cram as much as possible into the plan, in a short a time as possible, for as little money as possible, while still keeping it realistic. But the incentives are all based around promising more, aiming higher, and the judgement of what is realistic is deferred till later. Most developers will have worked in a place where the project was only landed because the publisher pushed back on what was feasible in the time, and the developer over-promised.

No-one in that process has ever been rewarded for under-promising, or aiming low. No-one in the publisher would get patted on the back if they revised the scope document down, or the expected price up. No-one in the developer’s management would get rewarded if they said they could deliver less given the same resources. You are punished right away if you fail to agree the best plan you can, but you are not immediately punished if you over-promised, and you might still be able to avoid that punishment in the future. The failure to deliver is only a possibility, in the future. Plus if you fail to deliver, it can be someone else’s fault, or you can push harder, or any one of a bunch of different things. But in the early phase, the solution to the problem you have right now seems to be to over-reach, even if it creates more problems for you in the future.

In the latter phase, when its clear you have over-promised, it’s too late. The deadlines are set, the budget is limited, the resources are finite. The only solution to the problem you have right now is to desperately try to eke out more productivity, any way you can. Short-term thinking is rewarded, because failure in the short-term is punished terribly. Crunch is a workable solution to hit the first milestone you are in danger of slipping, and the cost of crunching only comes due after that milestone. So the solution to the problem you have right now seems to be crunch, even if it creates more problems for you in the future. Again, the punishment for failing comes right away, but the punishment for making the decision to crunch is in the future, where it may be someone else’s problem, or it may be avoided, or it might be staved off by some other means.

Accountability is the problem. There will always be finite resources, money, time, staff and pressure to do more with less. But we wouldn’t be seeing these problems if we incentivised more conservative, realistic planning. If you make decisions that lead to failure later on, your punishment should be twice as severe as the punishment for if you fail early on. And you shouldn’t be able to offload the responsibility for that failure. If the team fail to deliver on your over-optimistic plans, you should be the one carrying the punishment for it. That can and should echo down the line – each person should have to face the consequences of failing to deliver, right down to the team level. But they should also be the ones estimating how much they can do. That does hit a snag at the tail end, in that at the leaf nodes, you have two conflicting goals. You’ve just incentivised your staff to promise very little (so they know they can fulfil their promises), you have to also find a way to incentivise them to promise a the highest amount that’s realistic. And that’s quite hard.

The problem I fear is that if you do this right, and you reverse the normal incentives so that projects are far more conservative and likely to go to plan, then the games produced are smaller, less radical, less interesting, and ultimately less profitable. And very possibly not profitable enough to maintain the companies involved. Still, I maintain that it’s better to be honest with yourself about the viability of your business, than it is to keep it afloat only by exploiting your staff resources and by failing to deliver to the clients and customers. After all, how much money do you think we waste, aiming too high and having to scrabble to recover; burning productivity well below where it should be because of crunch.

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Last modified: February 06 2020.