It is good to step outside the familiar confines of our jobs and look at the things we do through the lens of another field. Today we're going to reach out into the strange world of quantum mechanics for insights on pay program design and implementation.
Quantum mechanics, as briefly defined at LiveScience.com, is...
...the body of scientific laws that describe the wacky behavior of photons, electrons and the other particles that make up the universe. Quantum mechanics is the branch of physics relating to the very small. It results in what may appear to be some very strange conclusions about the physical world.
That, it turns out, is an understatement. Quantum theory (which underlies the field of quantum mechanics), when it emerged a hundred years ago, turned our understanding of reality and the classic world of physics upside down. Niels Bohr, one of the theory's pioneers, liked to say that "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it." A century after its birth, now being used daily in applications that range from MRI scanners to solar cells to DVDs, it is still considered a puzzle.
What can the murkiness that quantum physicists discovered at the heart of the atomic world possibly offer to us, who practice in human resources and compensation? I think it is encapsulated briefly and beautifully by Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, author of the bestsellers Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and Reality is Not What it Seems:
Reality is only interaction.
Quantum theory holds that things, at the atomic level, don't always exist. They exist only when they are observed by or when they interact with someone or something else. The controversial finding at the heart of quantum mechanics is that there is no objective reality independent of whoever happens to be reacting with whatever. As Rovelli likes to put it, the things of the world can be better compared to a kiss - which only exists when it happens - than a stone.
You think of your new salary structure, that incentive plan you developed in collaboration with your cross-functional design team, as things that exist as their own independent and objective realities. But what if that isn't true? What if your pay plans only exist, only become real when managers and employees interact with them? What if their reality is solely the experience that managers and employees have when they encounter the plan in their work lives.
The problem is that we often go about our jobs believing that our pay plans are like stones. We create them, we set them neatly in their place, we write a memo or hold a communication session (maybe even several communication sessions!), and then we step back and wait for the magic to happen while we turn to our next initiative. And we try to understand why they don't drive the changes and produce the impact we hoped for.
How would we do our jobs and plan our priorities if we considered the interaction that people have with our pay plans - rather than the plans themselves - as the product of our work? What might we do differently if we focused our ideation, design and implementation efforts on the "kisses" - those moments when managers and employees observe and interact with our pay plans? If we envisioned the result of our work as the net of interactions that builds over time around them instead of the content of the written plan materials?
Could this make our pay programs and our work better?
Ann Bares is the Editor of Compensation Café, Author of Compensation Forceand Managing Partner of Altura Consulting Group LLC, where she provides compensation consulting services to a wide range of client organizations. She earned her M.B.A. at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School and enjoys reading in her spare time. Follow her on Twitter at @annbares.
Image courtesy of Brittanica.com