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The Real Reason the Castaways Never Escaped Gilligan's Island

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No matter how hard they tried, for three years and 98 episodes, the seven castaways on Gilligan’s Island never got off the island.

Why did they fail to escape? They didn’t really try because they weren’t sufficiently motivated. Just like many employees  and even company founders, they didn’t have the right incentives.

The professor was happier on the island than off. Where else had he gained such respect and admiration? This brilliant scientist was able to generate electricity from a little human power and a few pulleys and capable of MacGyver-ing nearly anything from of coconuts and bamboo yet he couldn't build a transmitter from a radio or create a workable raft from the remains of the S.S. Minnow? Clearly the professor wanted to stay.

The skipper was a World War II naval veteran, a longtime boat captain and by all accounts a nautical genius. Yet his career wasn’t flourishing: He chartered a ragtag collection of clients for short-term cruises. Yet somehow a man with his skills couldn’t get them off the island either. Clearly the skipper wanted to stay.

Ginger, Mary Ann and the Howells didn’t have the skills or experience to get the castaways off the island but they could motivate the professor and skipper. And what about Gilligan? He managed to screw up just about every attempt they made. Maybe that was on purpose. He could also elicit plenty of attention from everyone -- negative attention, sure, but attention nonetheless.

And yet somehow no one did anything to Gilligan. They never made hard choices. They didn’t lock him up. They didn’t finish him off. They did nothing dramatic enough to keep him from foiling their attempts to escape the island. They cared more about Gilligan than getting off the island. 

The bottom line is that the castaways said they wanted to leave the island but their motivations and incentives weren’t aligned.

Related: 5 Psychological Strategies for Building a Winning Team Culture

The same thing happens in business with employee compensation and incentive plans. Often managers think they are creating incentives for specific behaviors, but they are motivating employees to do something completely different.

For example, many companies compensate employees for writing higher quality code. How is this measured? Typically the metric is based on the number of bugs found. If there are no bugs detected, then the software must be of high quality. Yet that also means the software takes longer to build.

Other companies create incentives for employees to fix bugs but give employees reasons to ignore (or at least not worry about) issues during the development stage. That way the bugs can be found later, fixed and employees are compensated.

The problem is that leaders often struggle to articulate what they want as an outcome, so instead they compensate behaviors.  

Related: How to Recruit Salespeople Who Will Deliver Dramatic Returns

Take salespeople. A behavioral approach to incentives is to provide compensation for making, say, 20 sales calls a day. If the company provides incentives for an individual to make 20 calls, he'll contact 20 individuals. He might not sell anything because whether or not those individuals are in any way interested or qualified sales leads doesn’t matter: Twenty calls is 20 calls.

The outcome the company managers truly want is a sale, though, not the calls. Wouldn’t you rather a salesperson make one call and achieve a sale rather than make 100 calls and achieve no sales?

But to define an outcome, the leader must have a tough conversation. He or she must be able to describe what's desired. Don't just define behaviors. Define success.

As a business owner, you have the power and the right to define what you want achieved. You have the right to define the outcome sought for the business, a goal, a project -- for anything.

Not only do you have power to define what you want. You also have the obligation. Your company can’t become successful until you first define what success means -- and then compensate and provide incentives to employees to do what's necessary to achieve it.

This doesn’t mean thinking about every possibility beforehand. What it means is that you need to define the outcome you want as well as you can and keep giving feedback to adjust the results along the way. Yes, it’s a process of building understanding. 

The castaways never got off the island because they didn’t have a good reason to do so. On the island, no one dealt with that problem.

At your company, make sure you deal with the important problems -- or you’ll never arrive where you want to be.

Related: 4 Reasons Sharing Performance Metrics Will Accelerate Your Business

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