Reaper functions beat culture decks

Institutions have implicit, explicit, and perceived missions. Or put differently, each institution has both a set of stated goals and principles summed up in either an explicit or implicit ‘culture deck’ and a set of incentive functions dominated by a ‘reaper function’ (Reaper functions dominate other incentives.)

Reaper functions are uncomfortable to talk about because they are usually orthogonal to, or blatantly contradict, culture decks. However, the reaper function trumps the culture deck (almost) every time. So if you want to explain why an institution does what it does and possibly predict what it might do (especially under pressure) it’s important to figure out its reaper function. And if you are being serious while creating an institution, it’s important to try to make your reaper function support your stated goals as much as possible and call out the places where there will inevitably be conflict.

Enumerating all the phenomena that reaper functions explain is beyond the scope of this note. As an example, Asymmetric career risk is an important phenomenon generated by reaper functions. You get fired if you make a weird bet and it doesn’t pay off but not if you take a standard action and it fails.

Reaper functions are why organizational structure matters so much. It’s tempting to say “we’ll just have an amazing mission and culture and the rest will work itself out.” <What makes a good organizational mission?> However, individual success within an institution will always bleed back into culture and mission ::This section needs work::

DARPA is interesting because the reaper function is time. DARPA Program managers have a tenure of four to five years no matter how successful or unsuccessful they are. Knowing nothing else about the organization that tells you that the incentive is either to try to make as much an impact as you can, or do nothing at all. The prestige function then points out towards which side of that bifurcation people will be pushed.

This is perhaps a dual to the Netflix deck point that your culture is who you hire, fire or promote. Reaper functions are why you hire fire or promote.


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