Dolphins Are Also Smart Enough to Game the System to Get More


Oh, how I enjoyed this article a month ago when it was sent to me. It's from 2003, but it was new to me:

Why dolphins are deep thinkers

From the article:

“All the dolphins at the [Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi] are trained to hold onto any litter that falls into their pools until they see a trainer, when they can trade the litter for fish. In this way, the dolphins help to keep their pools clean.”

If you're familiar with the concept of “gaming the system,” you might predict what might happen next, given the reputation that dolphins have for their intelligence.

I've written about this concept before, with posts including:

Lessons From The Wells Fargo Scandal, Mismanagement, And Gaming The Numbers

The Real #VAscandal Is The Long Waiting Times & Bad Management, Not Gaming By…

Gaming The System: Graduation Rates & Pneumonia Rates

Easier To Game The Numbers Than Fix The System — In Education And Healthcare

A Vivid Example Of Gaming The Numbers On “The Office”

Gaming The System At Starbucks

And then there's one of my favorite examples, the police officer who fined himself to meet his ticket-writing quota:

The officer is like a dolphin?

Wait, what? Oh right, this was a post about dolphins.

Back to Kelly, the litter-fetching dolphin from Mississippi… according to the Guardian, Kelly has what the Brits would call a “scheme”:

  1. Person drops litter into the water
  2. Kelly could turn in the paper for a fish, but… tears the paper into SMALLER pieces
  3. Kelly turns in each smaller piece of paper for a fish

Kelly has “gamed the system” to get more fish. Amazing!

“This behaviour is interesting because it shows that Kelly has a sense of the future and delays gratification. She has realised that a big piece of paper gets the same reward as a small piece and so delivers only small pieces to keep the extra food coming. She has, in effect, trained the humans.”

That's not all. That's not the extent of Kelly's cleverness.

When a gull flys into the enclosure, Kelly could turn in the bird to get a fish.

The scheme Kelly came up with:

  1. Capture a gull
  2. Turn it in for a fish
  3. Take the fish and hide it
  4. Use the fish as a lure to attract more gulls
  5. Get even more fish

Kelly even taught this gaming to a young calf. Amazing!

There's a lot of interesting details about dolphins in the article. It ends:

“There is still much to learn about these flexible problem-solvers, but from the evidence so far, it seems that dolphins do indeed deserve their reputation for being highly intelligent.”

In a human workplace, however, there's a fine line between “gaming” and “problem solving.”

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Gaming tends to be dysfunctional. But, it's natural human behavior that results when you have a combination of targets (or quotas) combined with fear.

When it's easier to game the system than it is to actually improve the system, people will game the system. They're often doing so to get rewards and praise — or they're doing so to avoid punishment or to save their jobs.

As leaders, we have to be careful when giving incentives that are intended to get behaviors that we want. As Dan Pink wrote about in his excellent book, DRIVE, incentives work… but they have side effects. Listen to my podcast with Dan:

As leaders, we have to think about how an incentive scheme might cause people to…. scheme. Instead of just pressuring people, we have to eliminate fear (as Dr. Deming would have said) and work with people to help them actually improve the systems they work within.

In a great “Ted Lasso” scene, Coach Lasso tells Sam Obisanya to “be a goldfish” — to have a short memory about a mistake or a failure.

If we're a “management goldfish” who quickly forgets the lessons of organizations that pressured employees into gaming the system, we might create more “dolphins” in our workplaces.

Don't blame them for gaming the system. You've given them no choice.

It's only dolphin human nature.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


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