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Archive for September, 2015

Additive vs Subtractive Merit

How does one get promoted? Climb the steps of the organizational ladder?

In a system of additive merit, people are evaluated by how much extra value they create for the organization. Going beyond expectation is the motto. Pieces of merit, small and large, add up as a person gets noticed and promoted.

In a system of subtractive merit, people are evaluated by how much time they spend in an organization without screwing up. Don’t fuck up is the motto. A person will slowly but surely climb the organizational ladder unless he/she makes some grave mistake, at which point the progress stops.

American readers generally resonate with additive merit while the Japanese reader is thinking “yup, subtractive merit is the Japanese system.”

As most people reading this blog are college educated professionals, most people are probably thinking the whole world should operate in a system of additive merit. People should be motivated to and be rewarded for going the extra mile.

No so fast.

There are types of work where subtractive merit is more of a natural fit, namely remedial jobs. It’s difficult for a grocery checkout clerk, mailman, train driver to really outshine each other.

Then there are those kinds of work where you may not want a system of additive merit, which can cause people to be competitive and/or overzealous at times. Do you really want a overzealous bouncer? street cop? Policing is an interesting case since there is only so much crime to be prevented. Put too competitive of a system for cops and they’ll start creating their own crime to police.

A system of subtractive merit generally creates more social harmony. Trying to one-up each other is a non-factor and people are unlikely to sabotage each other when everyone is slowly succeeding. When tasks and goals are definable and defined, subtractive method may be the preferred mode of working.

Of course this is not innovative work.

Not surprisingly, system of subtractive merit induces risk averse behavior. When there is nothing to be gained from trying something new but much to be lost by it not working out, people avoid it. This makes innovation incredibly difficult.

Not all organizations need to be innovative, but when a traditional one driven by a system of subtractive merit needs to become innovative, there are huge challenges. Behavior is incredibly inertial and even if the system is changed, it takes a long time for people to change.

A system of subtractive merit is also challenging for innovators inside established organizations. Doing something new often challenges the rules of an organization and without those willing to bend the rules, innovation can be tough. Furthermore, in a system of subtractive merit, most people see the innovator as a virus that could disrupt the cohesion of the organization, something that needs to be avoided,

Needless to say, this is the story of entrepreneurship in Japan and intrapreneurship in Japanese organizations. Much of Japan functioned smoothly for decades with an emphasis on social cohesion and not screwing up.

Maybe this is a better model of society, but I will remain judgement neutral for now.

What can be said is that in the age of increasing global competition and rapid change, Japanese needs more entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, people who are willing to take the risk and fuck up once every so often. There are more and more people taking the leap, but the system of merit is pitted against them.

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