William Shakespeare once said that “all the world’s a stage”. If he were around today, I’m sure he’d probably call it a game. A massive, multiplayer, real-world, role playing game.
The three things that make up all games – sports, board games, video games, you name it – are goals, rules and feedback. A good game is a goal-driven, challenge-intense and feedback-rich experience, geared towards progress.
Goals, rules and feedback also correlate with our modern pillars of motivation: purpose, mastery and autonomy.
And yet, most organisations are fixated on goals, but fail to get the other elements right. So! Let’s unpack how you can unlock motivation, productivity and progress in your work… by thinking like a game designer.
It is already a game: most work has a goal or an objective (or else, why are you doing it?). There are rules to follow (deadlines, resource limitations, convention), and there is always some way of finding out if you’re making progress (feedback). It’s not about turning work into a game, it’s about looking at the work you’ve got and making that game work better.
When studying what gets people most enthusiastic about doing work, researchers found that ‘a clear sense of progress’ was more effective than clear goals, incentives or rewards. This ‘progress principle’ was recognised as Harvard Business Review’s #1 breakthrough idea in 2010.
And it makes a heap of sense. We have a finite amount of energy, time and attention available to us each day so it’s obvious that we are more inclined to invest it towards things that contribute to progress.
Think about how you procrastinate: often your efforts will default to activities that provide the richest sense of progress. Checking email is a prime example – you start the day with one important project and 74 emails. By lunch time you’ve made no progress on the important project, but hey, your emails are down to 22. Winning!
It’s also common practice to write lists, including things you’ve already completed (just so you can tick it off!). We love a clear sense progress – and it’s the #1 element missing in most work.
Progress is what underpins everything.
The simplest hack you can employ to enhance the inherent motivation of any activity: make progress visible. Reduce the latency between effort and meaningful feedback. Chunk your work into bits, and then sequence those bits into contextual lists. Work up a simple roadmap of tasks, and work your way through them.
If working in a team, develop a shared structure and ritual around progress. This could be a high level Gantt Chart and a daily team huddle. Or it could be simple collaborative software and a weekly team check in. Either way: make progress visible, and have short circuit feedback loops wherever possible.
With this in play, we can then refine our game even further.
Conventional motivation approaches often over-emphasise the importance of attitude and belief. And when that doesn’t work, we usually default to incentives and rewards.
But by thinking like a game designer, you’ll have a third option: changing the game at play. Tweaking the goals, rules and feedback to make your work work better.
There are no right answers here – no secret three step solutions you can implement to auto-magically fix motivation forever.
But, with relentless curiosity, we can liberate ourselves (and the world!) from poorly designed work.
Dr Jason Fox is a motivation strategy & design expert who works senior executives and boards to make clever happen. He is the author of The Game Changer – learn more at www.drjasonfox.com