What the United States Census Taught Me About Balancing Goals

There’s a certain paradox inherent in working as a Census lister. On the one hand, you want to work fast—efficiency is both highly prized in listers and a source of bragging rights for said listers. You can get a lot of pride out of a good address-working rate, after all. On the other hand, working fast means working fewer hours, and in a contract job, working fewer hours means less pay. In short, being too efficient in working for the Census means you might literally work yourself out of a job. (The crew I worked in discovered this the hard way; it took us a grand total of two weeks after field training ended to run out of assignment areas to assign.)

My first reaction was disappointment. My second was anger. My third was “Hey, I can use this!”

This brings me to the idea of balancing goal scenarios. The idea behind these is that there are two possible rewards, and the person dealing with the scenario has to choose which of the rewards to favor and which to sacrifice. In the case of the Census, the goals being balanced were one with a tangible reward (“Get paid more”, a particularly good incentive in this economy) and one with a more intangible reward (“More impressive statistics”). As you can probably guess from the rate at which we finished, my group went for the more intangible reward.

As you can probably guess, being able to get people to choose an intangible reward over a tangible one is highly useful to a game master. How, then, did the Census do it, and how can we duplicate its results?

The first reason is that the intangible reward was actually a lot of intangible rewards (and a couple small tangible rewards for good measure). First is the simple issue of bragging rights; it’s easy to be proud after blasting through a block with multi-unit structures and discovering that even counting travel time your average is better than an address per minute. Second is an appeal to competitive nature and teamwork; I’m not sure about other groups, but my training group was given a spiel about interoffice competition and outdoing the other local Census offices by one of our superiors, and a bit of it managed to take despite being nearly obscured by all the business motivational poster talk. Third is practicality; not only does listing cut into time that could be spent doing other things, but a day in the field will usually result in sore feet, probably also sore legs if the assignment area has a lot of slopes or staircases. The sooner you’re done, the sooner you’re off your feet. Fourth is the possibility of a greater reward: while working quickly cut down the lister’s hours on this particularly project, our bosses were looking for the most efficient and most accurate listers for the next stage of the project. Not bad, is it?

The second was that there was a very good reason not to favor racking up time over having a high rate. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the parameters we were held to included a rate of address processing, so we could only go so slow without it reflecting badly on us.

So how do we create effective balancing goal scenarios and favoring the goal we want in our stories? First, we come up with two rewards, and figure out which of them we want to be taken. Then we start stacking the deck in favor of our preferred reward: branch a couple other rewards onto it, come up with reasons not to favor the other one too much, and in essence pump up its value. Last, we make sure these factors get aired when dealing with the situation; if the audience doesn’t know about it, after all, it isn’t calculated into the equation.

Try it! Does it work for you?

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