A few key principles may guide you here:

  1. Be clear on how much and for what measures the managers involved can “move the needle,” with a direct effect on the company’s financial results. Product Managers could be measured on product line gross margin or operating income, with a similar measure for Program Managers, for example. But make sure the measurement and reporting systems will support robust measurement of their results.
  2. Be sure you have enough incentive to actually motivate and drive behavior towards the results you want. Anything less than about 15% of target cash compensation may not be worth the cost of designing, reporting and administering the plans (in terms of the effect on results). This can be tricky if you are offering incentives for the first time as you probably don’t want to reduce base to fund them. If you can redeploy budgeted money from a broad-based employee incentive plan to help fund it, you can bring the pay mix in line over time through reducing the increases in base and putting them towards the variable portion.
  3. Be careful with target setting. You need to aim for about 60% of your employees on variable pay plans to be at or above target, or it won’t motivate much.
  4. Offer enough upside. If you are putting people in an at-risk pay situation, possibly for the first time, you need to be sure a few people really ring the bell and get a handsome payout (1.5-2.0 times the target incentive), and publicize and celebrate these successes — it helps motivate everyone.
  5. Be sure the people in the role have the risk profile to find this motivating (or that that is the sort of person you want in the role, and are willing to make the needed adjustments). Not all solid employees are “coin operated.”
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