People & Human Resources

Why business owners should think like game designers

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“So, how do we motivate people to do great work?” 

It’s a darn important question.

The classic motivational approach would have us focus on internal drivers: attitudes, values, goals, passion and belief. This stuff can be transformational if you have a sophisticated coach who knows what they are doing, and who is working directly with individuals. But otherwise, this stuff doesn’t scale. And most of the time it’s just rubbish feel-good motivational folklore that does little to change or improve things in a significant or sustainable way. 

And so the alternative we are left with is to take the classic managerial approach, and influence motivation with goals and incentivised performance. And this works incredibly well. Set a clear goal, and attach a reward to it, and you’re highly likely to get the behaviour you’re looking for. This is what drives most businesses today – we pay for performance.

The only thing is: this type of approach is fundamentally flawed, generates a heap of unintended consequences, and won’t serve us for the future of work. 

Beyond goals, rewards and default thinking

Most of what we know in mainstream management was born from the factory era. Productivity, competition and compliance were the key drivers in the type of work. But now the world has changed, and it’s creativity, collaboration and agility that we need for the future of work. 

Goals and rewards narrow focus and inspire short-term, myopic thinking. They’re fantastic if the work is formulaic, with predictable outcomes – running a marathon, making big sets of simple sales calls or crunching through repetitive data entry might be examples of this. 

But sometimes an over-emphasis on goals (whether they’re SMART goals, or big, hairy audacious ones) can hobble creativity and cripple collaboration, especially when they are linked to incentives and rewards.

But the good news is – there’s another approach.

Making work inherently motivating

Rather than trying to change the player, and rather than simply adding more bonuses and rewards into a system, we have a third option – change the game and make work inherently motivating.

Now, I should confess – I used to be one of those motivational speakers that would talk about the importance of setting goals and visualising success. In my darkest moments I recall getting classes of high school students to chant positive affirmations. 

But then, whilst completing a PhD in motivation science, two things happened:

1. I realised that motivation is a lot more complex than the conventional motivational folklore would suggest

2. I started playing World of Warcraft (an online roleplaying game)a lot.

This was bizarre. Despite lecturing on the topic of motivation, and having some very important goals for fitness, finance and thesis writing, I was spending all of my spare time playing a video game (the very thing the media love to associate with a lack of motivation). This lasted for three months – and my progress in all other projects stumbled to a halt. 

It was only when I moved house and lost my internet connection that I realised what was going on. Somehow, the design of this game had displaced all of the motivational structures I had. It was more effective at sustaining my energy and engagement than goal setting or any of the conventional motivational methods the success gurus preach. And so, henceforth I embarked upon a quest to unpack why some games are so effective at sustaining motivation and engagement, and how business leaders could use these insights to make progress happen at work.

What I discovered was intriguing.

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