Why do we play games? This simple question packs a lot of complexity which, when understood, can have a transformational impact on an individual and an organization. In this blog post I will introduce the concept of gamification and share a story where it has been effective.
There are many different types of games: sports, board games, video games, etc. While they vary significantly in required skill, rules, participation and so on, they all share a common structure – a set of activities bound by specific guidelines, leading to some reward. We can play as individuals or as teams. We can compete with ourselves or with others. The end goal is to win and, in the process we think, plan, learn, move forward and, sometimes, back, experience a wide range of emotions and ultimately have fun. If we didn’t, we would not play games.
Games create a “parallel reality” where we can feel differently than in our daily lives. In this new reality we can explore things we would not otherwise do. We can fail and then simply reset and move on. Games can also give us hope and that hope is what often has us coming back for more. We play games not because we have to, but because we want to. Gamification is about making things that we have to do more fun. The goal of gamification is to apply game concepts to a non-game situation, such as a workplace and, therefore, to create an environment where people want to work. The below example is a story of a team of people that went from dreading coming to work to looking forward to it.
In 2016 I was asked to come in to a large healthcare organization with the goal of increasing productivity in a key business function. The entire organization depended on the output of this group, so in a sense, it was the organizational constraint. The total team count was nearly sixty people, most of which were hourly employees. The atmosphere was challenging – very large backlog of work, poor work quality, low morale and high turnover. I had less than a year to turn it around.
The first step was to set a goal that people would rally behind. Not an easy task, but very critical. We started with a series of “complaint sessions” where people openly shared their frustrations. Then we imagined and drew the future state – something that people would be excited about. The goal was larger than just their department and it helped create a greater purpose which people could champion around. Having a common and clear goal was the right first step, but it was not enough to motivate people.
The second step was to build a roadmap that would show people how they could achieve the goal they had set. The roadmap also gave them control and allowed to get to the goal on their terms. This element fed another core individual need – direction. Everyone knew that they were in the same boat moving towards the same destination. This was enough to get the initial kick start to the transformation, but it would not last if people did not continually grow. Continuous improvement offers two very important elements into the overall transformation: rhythm and small wins. Setting rhythm makes change part of a routine, reducing the obstacle to starting the desired improvements. Small wins are the solutions to problems and risks that we encounter on a daily basis. They provide an inflow of positive emotions that help us to keep going. This is where gamification would be most useful. It made the process of uncovering and solving problems in a continual fashion more fun and rewarding.
Once we had a clear goal and a roadmap to achieving it, we set the change rhythm leveraging basic Agile principles. Three week sprints during which we set small goals based on the issues we had to address most urgently. For each problem uncovered we awarded points. For each problem solved, we awarded more points. This was the foundation of our game. Now, the challenge was to add in fun elements that would also earn points. We added points for getting engaged in various activities – corporate events, team events, etc. We also wanted people to grow personally and to become closer as a team, so we awarded points for learning and teaching various new things. One of the biggest successes were “lunch and learns” where people came together to share all kinds of knowledge they possessed. To help build teamwork, “engagement” points were awarded to encourage people to lend a hand and get to know each other better. These points were given out by employees themselves.
Once the point structure was developed we created a ranking system and rules of engagement. To maximize participation, we had people competing both, individually and as teams. All points earned had an individual and a team value, with varied weight of course, depending on the type of activity. Rankings were public and updated daily to reflect progress as real time as possible. Finally, the game was packaged into a race, with a global travel theme, which allowed us to sprinkle in fun challenges that exposed the outside world to the people, many of whom never left the country. As the result, people learned many fun facts from around the world, for example how healthcare was structured in UK, India and China. Pop quizzes and trivia were a welcome touch, many of which were created by the people themselves. In the end we had mixed work activities with non-work activities and got people excited about earning points and growing. When various levels were achieved, prizes were given out and celebrations took place. When the game was over, the top individuals and teams got meaningful rewards, including financial bonuses and time off. The game had enterprise-wide visibility and senior leadership had a role to play as well. They were encouraged to participate in the award ceremonies and in creating challenges. All with the purpose of bringing people together.
What did we end up having in the end? A truly transformed team that was closer together, that was better organized and motivated. We eliminated the backlog and created a culture of continuous improvement, significantly improving the quality of the team’s output. The overall productivity went up 30% in just three months and remained at that level for many more months after that. And as for season two of the game – we started looking at deploying gamification to a 600 - person IT team, but that is a story for another blog.