Management for control or responsiveness – the fault line in gamification

by Simon Terry

Digital disruption is surfacing yet again a long running a battle between two schools of thought. One school of thought is that human beings need extrinsic motivations, centrally planned processes and close management and control to improve efficiency and achieve valuable outcomes. Another school seeks to leverage the inherent motivations, human creativity and maximise the potential of people to create their own future. Any debate on gamification triggers this debate anew.

Gamification involves the use of extrinsic processes to shape human behaviour and motivation. Through use of the processes of games, gamification leverages our natural motivations to compete, to earn status or to solve challenges in the pursuit of goals set by the rules of a game. In its application of a series of external rules to optimise human behaviour, gamification is a descendent of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management with its goal of measuring and optimising human behaviour. Implicit in Taylor’s approach is the belief that smart people with the right data can better design the outcomes of others.

Under the assault of digital disruption, organisations are questioning their ability to centrally plan responses to a changing world. Gamification appears to offer a way of controlling for a better outcome without the burden of planning, detailed process management and constraining policies. If the rules of the game allow for flexibility to use better ways achieve the outcomes desired, then where is the harm? Winning additional effort in pursuit of prescribed goals is a valuable outcome of gamification and it can foster new conversations about performance.

The challenge that gamification must address is that human creativity includes the ability to understand and to change the system in which human activity occurs. Competitors can and will change the game in a situation of digital disruption. Customers can change the game. Even your employees can understand and change the game. What happens if the rules of the game need to change or even the outcomes need to change in a rapidly changing market?

Human beings have a remarkable ability to work out the path of least effort to achieve an outcome in a game. It has been said that if you want to find the flaw in a sales performance system give it to a sales team. We have used the dynamics of games to manage sales teams for years. In too many situations, sales team have ‘gamed the sales performance system’ to achieve outcomes that maximise their personal returns without necessarily meeting the purposes of the organisation or its customers. People can collaborate and change the dynamics of competitive games or can choose to compete in collaborative games. If we rely on extrinsic rules and motivation, there is a danger that the rules that shape behaviour will not adapt quickly enough to these kinds of change. The smart people managing the game aren’t always aware of the behaviours occurring however good the game metrics.

Fostering an alignment of intrinsic motivation with the purposes of an organisation is by no means a clear or easy path. However, it clarifies the role of leadership and offers the advantage of leaving the smart people to work on their own work, not that of others. Mastering the complexity of leveraging intrinsic motivation is the work of Responsive Organisations.

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