Incentive Contracts in Projects with Unforeseeable Uncertainty

S. SOMMER, C. Loch

Production and Operations Management

March-April 2009, vol. 18, n°2, pp.185-196

Departments: Information Systems and Operations Management

Keywords: Incentives, Incomplete contracts, Unforeseeable uncertainty, Adjustment clause

Designing incentive contracts that constructively guide employee efforts is a particularly difficult challenge in novel innovation initiatives, where unforeseen events may occur. Empirical studies have observed a variety of incentive structures in innovation settings: "time and material contracts" (compensation for executing orders), "downside protection" (target-driven incentives with protection from unexpected risks), and "upside rewards" (additional remuneration for pursuing opportunities). This paper develops a model of incentives in presence of unforeseen events and offers a theoretical prediction of which of the empirically observed incentive structures should be used under which circumstances. The combination of three key influences drives the shape of the best incentive contract. First, the presence of unforeseeable uncertainty, or the occurrence of events that cannot possibly be foreseen at the outset. These may force a change in the project's plan, making pure target setting insufficient. Second, fairness concerns dictate that the employee's expected compensation cannot be shifted downward by unforeseen events, because it would cause demotivation, hostility, and defection. Third, management may not be able to observe the detailed actions of the employee (moral hazard) nor whether a positive or negative unforeseen event has occurred (asymmetric information).