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Gamification in project management

Connect 4Last year, it was all about social media. This year’s hot new trend is gamification. What’s that, I hear you ask? It’s such a new word that my spellchecker flags it up as an error.

Gamification has been around for a while. It’s the art of making work seem less like, well, work. It’s about using techniques used in games in non-gaming contexts in order to increase engagement. Back in 1999 when I worked for American Express, we had a company-wide game. For every shop you reported that did not accept the Amex card, you received a game card with a picture on. It was a bit like Snap. If you matched the pictures on the cards you could cash them in for a prize. I remember collecting dozens of cards and being disappointed when they didn’t match and elated when they did. I must have got a few prizes that summer but I can’t even remember what they were. It’s playing the game that I remember, not the outcome.

APM have even set up a gamification in project management group this year. The Gamification Study Tour is funding a group of new project managers in the Thames Valley region to investigate innovative methods for improving engagement amongst project stakeholders through gamification.

So how does it work?

Gamification in practice

People like recognition, and they like to feel part of something. Gamification techniques tap into that – the idea of leaderboards, badges and levels. Games often include things to collect (like houses in Monopoly) or privileges if you hold a certain card (like The Really Nasty Horse Racing Game), or a way of collecting points (like Scrabble).

Putting these social triggers into the workplace is supposed to make people feel more engaged. We see it through:

  • Badges, awards and shields (like on projectmanagement.com)
  • Leaderboards (like the LinkedIn groups ‘top influencers this week’ feature)
  • Points (like RedCritter Tracker [link removed — tool appears to be no longer available as at June 2020], an agile project management software tool)

The APM group identified 5 benefits to like this. They are:

  • Increasing productivity, as people stay at their tasks for longer because they are more fun
  • Improving morale, as people like social recognition, collecting ‘likes’ etc
  • Increasing quality, although I don’t know how this is related to gamification techniques
  • Increasing employee retention, because life at work is nicer
  • Creating an exciting work environment, because we all like to work somewhere exciting!

I’m also sure that some people would be very happy in a work environment that doesn’t encourage competition or too much excitement through leaderboards, so I think there are some people who would be very much left out of any project gamification activity. PropsToYou is a project management tool that doesn’t use leaderboards and instead encourages people towards their personal best. I think we’ll see more of this kind of use of game theory in the future as people get better at how to understand the practical aspects of motivational theory in a business environment.

Gamification for collecting data

Of course, companies only build game-like features into their software or processes for a reason. Like the Amex game, it’s about collecting data. If you use gamification features on your online project management tool, you can encourage people to enter their project reports, task updates and so on. Anything that encourages people to use the product has to be a good thing, as often software implementations fail not because the software is no good but because people prefer to work outside it.

With consumer-led gaming, companies can get all sorts of data about customers. Starbucks is doing this at the moment with the 2012 Red Cup Challenge, a Facebook game that I’m sure shares your details with Starbucks behind the scenes and therefore gives them useful information on their customer base.

In short, gamification makes sense from a business perspective as well as an employee engagement perspective. Better data leads to better decisions.

The difference between gamification and behaviour shaping

In my latest book, Customer-Centric Project Management, I talk about gamification as one of the ways to address the challenge of needing to collaborate on project teams. I was lucky to have some insight from Mattias Hällström, Founder and Director of R&D at Projectplace. “One of the major reasons for Facebook’s success is the way the ‘like’ feature is implemented to encourage positive feedback,” he said. “Heavy Facebook users get addicted to positive feedback from their friends.”

Mattias explained that in behavioural science, the human reaction to positive feedback is explained as intermittent re-enforcement of behaviour by the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is intimately connected to human emotion. “It is a powerful social mechanism hard-wired into the human brain,” he said. “Positive feedback creates trust and reduces defensive behaviour, and it has evolved to enable humans to rapidly align their behaviour to each other to cooperate efficiently.”

Projectplace has tapped into this by including features that help the project manager to shape team member and stakeholder behaviour. They call this ‘behaviour shaping’ instead of gamification. “That’s why we have implemented a Facebook inspired ‘like’-feature in the Projectplace Conversations tool,” Mattias explained. “With this the project manager has a well-recognised and powerful usage model to encourage desired behaviour of team members and project stakeholders. We call this ‘Collaborative Planning’. Our goal is to help people involved in a project to coordinate and align their commitments with the project purpose to become more customer-centric.”

I think we’ll see more companies adopting gamification and behaviour shaping techniques in project management, and this will evolve as people realise that there is more to successful game-style features than leaderboards and setting up project team members to compete with each other.

However, I’m not aware of any research into this in the project management field particularly. It seems as if most of the academic work has been around driving consumer behaviour, so things like getting people to buy more stuff with Facebook games, which is not workplace-related. If anyone knows of any research into gamification specifically, please let me know in the comments! Equally, if you have any experience of using the game-like features of PropsToYou, RedCritter or ProjectPlace (or another tool), let us know what you thought of them and whether this kind of thing encourages and engages you at work.

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.

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