Many believe that introducing gamification to social business systems can and will drive behavior change inside of organizations. Introducing these components will certainly cause many people to act differently, but will the changes be the desired changes, or will they actually make things worse?
Let’s start by understanding what gamification is. Gamification.org defines gamification as the concept of applying game-design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging. This translates that if you perform some pre-determined/desired task in a prescribed way that you will get a reward. This could be as simple as completing an on-line profile or be much more complicated requiring many steps to be completed. Usually the reward increases as the task complexity or difficulty increases.
Creatures of habit
When you start a new job, there are many new things to learn. At the beginning, this can be overwhelming as we try to learn all the things we need to do to be successful. In brain terms, this means that your cerebral cortex gets a lot of exercise as it tries to comprehend how things need to be done. Our cerebral cortex is a very limited resource that requires a lot of energy, so the brain shifts routine tasks to other parts of the brain so that it can focus on new things. After doing a prescribed task a few times, the task shifts to the basal ganglia where it becomes a habit. (This is a highly simplified version of the process).
In The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in live and business by Charles Duhigg the author breaks down habits into three components:
Cue -> Routine -> Reward
The cue is what causes us to take action. This could be a new e-mail in your inbox, a call from a customer for example.
The routine is the action we perform. We read the e-mail, pick up the phone, etc.
The reward is benefit that results from performing the routine. We check off a task on our list, get a new sales opportunity. These rewards trigger a release of dopamine, which is responsible for reward driven learning.
The more often you do the routine task, the deeper the habit gets ingrained in our basal ganglia. It’s because of this that changing habits is difficult. The author goes on to describe that by recognizing the queues that you can change the routine and still get the reward.
Tying it together
If we bring gamification back in, it interacts in the habit loop in two ways:
- It encourages a routine to be done in a specific way to be rewarded.
- It encourages you to do new things in order to get new rewards that you haven’t experienced before.
Gamification ties directly to the habit loop. This all works very well as described until you bring in another component to the equation: Incentives.
We are all incented to work. At the most basic level, you work so that you earn money to provide food and shelter. The habit loop in this case is to define objectives, achieve the objectives, get a paycheck/raise/bonus/promotion. So what happens if we use gamification as an incentive?
The Cobra Effect
A recent Freakonomics podcast called The Cobra Effect did a great job of describing what happens when you introduce incentives to solve a problem.
Vikas Mehrotra describes the cobra effect:
So the “cobra effect” refers to a scheme in colonial India where the British governor, or whoever, the person in charge in Delhi, wanted to rid Delhi of cobras. Apparently in his opinion there were too many cobras in Delhi. So he had the bounty placed on cobras. And he expected this would solve the problem. But the population in Delhi, at least some of it, responded by farming cobras. And all of a sudden the administration was getting too many cobra skins. And they decided the scheme wasn’t as smart as initially it appeared and they rescinded the scheme. But by then the cobra farmers had this little population of cobras to deal with. And what do you do if there’s no market? You just release them. And so this significantly, by a few orders of magnitude, worsened the cobra menace in Delhi.
The episode goes on to describe many incentive schemes that ended in similar fashion. All of them relate to how clever people “gamed” the system for personal gain without solving the problem and in some cases making the problem worse.
Back to business
If we bring this back to the context of employees and how people are rewarded, we begin to see how gamification and incentives can have an undesirable impact on a company’s performance and even hurt the company culture.
It is almost inevitable that someone will want to measure and evaluate employee performance based on their rewards when deciding who to give a raise, who gets a bigger bonus or who to promote. Whether this is done formally through some Human Resources process or informally because the decision maker doesn’t have enough information to make the decision objectively and is looking for something to aid them. Once this happens, people will figure it out. Once they figure it out, this will become widely known throughout the organization through socialization. If it’s even remotely suspected that people achieved reward by gaming the system, it will create a divide inside of a company that is difficult to repair.
Let’s take collaboration for example. Many social business tools award points for performing various activities inside their platform. It’s not hard to then correlate (often incorrectly) that the people with the highest scores are the most collaborative. But, without context of solving business problems, it’s feasible for a person to get a high score by being active in a group that may be non-work related, or even just making noise by inserting their thoughts as a way to gain more points without providing value.
At one of my previous companies, there was one resourceful person who understood the theory of this and wrote an e-mail bot that contributed to a private group that he set up. After only a few days, his score for the system was higher than everyone else’s. In this particular instance, we were just starting off, and we were focused on this particular metric, but imagine what could happen where there are many gaming elements where it’s not so easy to spot someone who is gaming the system.
Gamification can be valuable, but also can be dangerous. A full understanding of what you are trying to accomplish is necessary and a critical analysis of the potential impacts must be performed before implementing these systems. As tempting as it may be to measure people by these rewards, as history has shown, the impacts of doing so will almost always lead to unexpected consequences. If you want to experiment with gamification, I would recommend you limit it to things that do not tie to incentives and actively dissuade people from using this to incent people.
Your Brain at work by David Rock