The Cobra Effect

Performance-based targets and metrics can be gamed… which is why they should often be scrapped.

During the British Raj (1858 to 1947), when the British Government ruled India, a cobra problem existed.

Delhi in the North was the home of a growing population of cobras.

British Government officials were terrified by the number of venomous cobra snakes loose in the city.

In true British fashion, a solution was proposed.

The British Government devised a brilliant idea of an exchange offer to the people of Delhi.

Each time they brought forward a dead cobra, they would be awarded.

1 dead cobra = 1 payment.

2 dead cobras = 2 payments.

And because these cobras were such a problem, the payment was high.

But that was okay for the British. Dead cobras were being delivered so the problem must be easing; the number of cobras in the region must be falling.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.

The opposite was true.

Yes, fewer cobras were generally seen around the city.

But more and more cobras were being delivered to the British Government, with more and more money being paid out.

The dead cobras coming in never dropped off.

For some time, the British couldn’t understand what was happening.

It didn’t make sense.

Until they stumbled upon a breeding site on the outskirts of the city.

And another.

The entrepreneurs of Delhi had devised a way to make money from the scheme.

Rather than capture wild cobras, cobras were bred on farms.

Breeding them to a certain age to be killed, and then taking them to the British.

Breeders made a steady income from the scheme – it was much easier to kill captive cobras than to hunt them in the city.

This reminds me a little of goal-setting in a marketing context.

I’ve touched on goal setting in a previous post that included the dubious Captain Hornigold.

But this is a little different.

Often, senior leadership will exert their performance-based targets on marketers.

Targets that are designed to make marketers work harder, but don’t always improve marketing performance.

You know the metrics I speak of.

Social media follows or shares, raw pageviews or the number of ad impressions. Or brand awareness, sentiment and share of voice…

These sorts of targets – such as no. calls targets or even no. of hours on the phone – also exist for salespeople, and yet yield no return.

None of which will tackle problems that the organisation might face.

I wrote a blog post last month – originally intended as a fun addition to our agency’s newsletter – on 21 productive things to do while at home or in quarantine that has since generated nearly 20,000 pageviews.

A highly useful post for those with free time, but one that won’t affect the agency’s bottom line in any way. It won’t attract customers; it won’t generate leads.

Which means it won’t be included within any of my reporting.

Over-reporting on these targets itself is also common, which I still can’t believe happens in organisations.

It’s a shame because this isn’t what we would do if we weren’t told to.

The marketers I know will not report on such metrics without being asked to do so by the leadership team who are trying to get the best out of their employees by achieving the opposite.

Marketers want to justify their paychecks by contributing to the bottom line. We want to do things that will benefit the organisation and our colleagues.

Leadership teams could do more by demonstrating a clear vision for the future.

Where the marketers can then decide on how that vision can be made a reality.

A reason for change from is enough, rather than slapping (often worthless) performance-based targets on an all-too frequent basis.

Perhaps a common purpose, with motivational programmes and alignment with marketing and sales.

Goals can be set but they need to be clear, concise, unambiguous and business-driven (not measured within a vacuum).

And this observation is not to protect marketers from crazy performance-based targets.

This is to avoid marketers having to chase targets which are essentially worthless, that will backfire.

Because targets and schemes as such can be manipulated and gamed just like in British India.

Adding insult to injury to the British, once the scheme was scrapped, they had another problem to tackle.

The breeders found themselves with nests of cobras in the thousands.

Cobras which were completely worthless.

There was no point keeping them, or trying to sell them elsewhere.

So they simply released them into the city of Delhi.

Leading the British Government back to square one with another cobra problem.

And giving birth to The Cobra Effect: An attempted solution to a problem making the problem worse.

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14 thoughts on “The Cobra Effect

      1. I am very much so, we’ve done well in our part of the world to contain Corona, and in general we haven’t yet hit flu season. I trust you are doing well too?

  1. Very interesting post! I’m always looking for new marketing ideas and this story is a good reminder to make sure my marketing affects my bottom line. Thanks for the insightful post!

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