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Gamification in the Workplace

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In this past Sunday’s Wall St. Journal, Farhad Manjoo had a piece on gamification in the workplace. It begins…

Envision that every one of your professional endeavors was meticulously tracked and measured in points, that there were levels to complete and you were given prizes for excellence. That every workplace action provided a tangible sensation of winning or losing as part of a system engineered to keep you addicted, thrilled to come back every morning.

I attempted to do just that back in 2012. Working at Y&R advertising at the time, I wanted to explore motivation, cross-discipline collaboration, measurement of productivity and other issues within a creative environment that often defaults to rather soft metrics when assessing output from both a qualitative and quantitative standpoint.  I should preface this by saying I by no means consider myself an expert in game mechanics, which is a real science and requires some real rigor. My experience with game mechanics, and the broader concept of gamification comes from my experience working with Badgeville, a leader in this space and a company that is mentioned in Manjoo’s article. I’ve seen a little bit of how the sausage was made and I found it fascinating and more complex than I, or I imagine most people, originally assumed.

Before diving in it’s important to understand that the blanket term gamification that gets thrown around has probably hurt more than helped. I’ve heard people just throw it out there without a real understanding. Like most tools, it can be used in a multitude of ways and before you implement it, it’s important to understanding a variety of factors:

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • What are the existing behaviors of those who will be using the system?
  • Will this program be competitive or cooperative in nature?
  • Will it be individual or community-based?

There are many more factors of course, I’m just listing a couple to give you an idea. One other important thing to mention, and this is something brought up in the article. Manjoo writes:

“Getting people to do things they don’t really want to do turns out to be a key mission of workplace gamification.” 

One of the core tenants reiterated in many of my conversations with Badgeville was that “gamification won’t get people to do things they don’t already want to do.”  Or, maybe they’ll do it once, but they won’t stick with it very long and they’ll resent you for the manipulation. I’m not arguing with Manjoo’s assertion, my guess is that that is exactly how many organizations are implementing gamification on the enterprise level. My guess is that they will be disappointed with the results.

Game mechanics are better used in service of engaging people in activities they are already interested in participating in. That’s why it works so great in games, or people who are already motivated to connect with others via social platforms (think LinkedIn profile completion progress bar.)  Game mechanics can work great within communities that are focused on a common cause. I’d wager that workplace implementation of gamification strategies fairs poorly in companies that have a toxic corporate culture. Conversely, and somewhat ironically, places that have a great culture probably don’t need to use game mechanics to motivate employees.

So, how did my experiment go? It was certainly educational. I learned about my own motivational triggers, what sort of activities I liked doing and what I didn’t, and which ones I was best at. I also learned a good amount about implementing game mechanics. Here are some key take-aways:

Have a common cause

Whether you are using game mechanics on individuals or groups, in competitive or cooperative situations, it’s important that it ladder up to something more than just points and badges. Needing everybody to get their timesheets in on time is not enough of a reason. Gamification can be a great way to help employees understand how they fit into the bigger picture (lack of that understanding is a big reason people leave a company.)

Story matters 

Here’s where the science meets creativity. Yes, I created a sophisticated points and ranking system that took into account dozens of different transactions and engagements that I regularly undertook. But I wrapped that in a story about needing to reach certain point totals to help my creative muses escape the clutches of an evil villain.

Understand the Psychology of Your Potential Users

I can be super-competitive at times. I knew going in that what I created would appeal to me, and I created something that would press all the right buttons for me since I was the only player in this game. It’s important to understand the larger group dynamics within the organization. Would individual players want to know other people’s scores? Would that inspire, depress or potentially embarrass them? Would a competitive game with one winning team or player be better, or should it be set up to be a cooperative experience where individuals are helping each other? Or would the entire concept of gamification go over like a lead balloon? If your company isn’t a good fit for this sort of thing, don’t force it.

Have a Plan for the Long Game

My experiment went pretty well for the first five months. I set it up so that I would be motivated to do things that I felt were important, but that weren’t perhaps things that came naturally to me. Initially I found that I was engaging in those activities, and in general I was doing more and had a better understanding of what my overall output was. But after a while it became a bit mechanical. I hadn’t fully planned out a sequel or continuing adventure to keep the motivation high. Playing completely by myself (and being the game designer as well) was certainly a factor there, but the rule still holds true. Once you commit to engaging people through gamification, and they commit to the program, you have to make sure you know how to continue the program and be clear about how it will progress and how it will end.

Communication

This wasn’t an issue I ran into in my experiment, but it’s something I’ve experienced participating in many gamified environments. You need to over-communicate to the participants. Yes, you know what’s happening and why and when, but they don’t. This shouldn’t be a mystery, clear objectives and goals should be stated. Let people know what they need to do to succeed, how it works and who they can contact if they have questions. That being said…

Surprise!

What you do want to do is add little elements of surprise, or humor or some other trigger that gives the user a little moment of joy. It could be in the copy you write, humorous badge art or an inside joke turned into the name of a super-power earned.  The more personal to your organization the better.

Fiero and Naches

I can’t make this an exhaustive primer on gamification, but here are two key elements you do want to understand and consider. Fiero refers to the feeling of accomplishment one gets when succeeding in a task that is just hard enough to be challenging. Creating a system that achieves enough of those moments is difficult and I’m sure something that isn’t often considered in the enterprise level gamification that Manjoo is writing about. Naches is the sense of pride one has when we see the success of someone we taught or helped. Parents get this with their kids, and there are no doubt people at your workplace who thrive on the sense. How are you creating, fostering and rewarding that behavior is a key question.

When done right, game mechanics can be as powerful as the hype surrounding it. But I’d caution that you have to really understand it and put resources behind doing it right.

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