Game Mechanics to Drive Consensus & Cooperation

Michael Hugos, Principal, Center for Systems Innovation | 2/5/2013 | 14 comments

Michael Hugos
How do you get lots of people to focus on common objectives and cooperate to achieve those objectives when you cannot order them to do anything at all?

We're all used to the traditional command and control process where a few people at the top of an organization issue orders to everyone else and tell them what to do. But is there any other way to get things done?

I was CIO of an $8 billion cooperative that provided companies with food service disposables like paper cups, plastic forks, and cleaning supplies. In a traditional corporation, I would have had some power to order all the business units to operate in certain standard ways. But in a cooperative, I had no power at all to issue orders. The business units were members and owners of the cooperative, not just branch locations, and they could run their operations any way they wished.

At the same time, we had big national account customers such as Starbucks and Whole Foods Market and they insisted on demanding service level agreements (SLAs) in their contracts with us. My challenge was to get the member companies to agree on operating procedures and then cooperate with me and with each other to meet the SLAs that our customers expected.

A simple and effective way to drive performance
I employed one of the simplest and most powerful game mechanics to make this happen: feedback systems. I created applications that provided daily and weekly feedback to focus people's attention and create peer group pressure to keep improving member performance as needed to meet customer expectations.

The applications I developed measured member performance against our SLA targets and reported their performance online for all to see. When everyone knew that everyone else could see how they were doing, they did not want to be seen as the one who was dragging down our collective performance. And those who did occasionally drag down our collective performance got a lot of attention from their fellow members. Those fellow members (unlike me) could and did call up the laggards and tell them how to get their act together.

Simple dashboards and score cards measured member performance in agreed-upon operations. A sample dashboard and a member scorecard are shown below. In the game world, dashboards would be called a leaderboard and scorecards would be called performance readouts, but they both serve the same purpose. They provide feedback that modifies and guides behavior.

Feedback systems guide continuous response to changing conditions
On the dashboard in the upper left, members earned a green star if they achieved agreed-upon performance levels. They got a yellow face if they got close, and they got a red frowny face if they were far off. How many green stars do you see and how many red frowny faces? That was the start of a new program and members were having a tough time coming up to speed. But this visibility created peer group pressure that insured every member would improve their operations quickly, and they did.

The member scorecard in the lower right shows performance of an individual member company for a given week. All members working together to serve a particular customer could look at the performance readouts for the other members on that account. Everyone could see which members were performing well, and those members could share their best-practices with other members who weren't doing so well. That way, everyone kept learning and adjusting their operations so that we met our collective SLA targets with our customers.

Game mechanics like this can be used to guide and coordinate behavior in situations where traditional methods of top-down command and control are not possible or no longer work so well. And there are more and more situations like this every year because business in our real-time economy is increasingly carried out in shifting alliances and partnerships between companies who come together to achieve common goals.

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Susan Nunziata   Game Mechanics to Drive Consensus & Cooperation   2/13/2013 12:02:27 AM
Re: Peer pressure
@Michael: I'm with you on this one. Empowering people throughout the organization to engage in critical thinking and problem solving is crucial for success and long-term talent retention.
Michael Hugos   Game Mechanics to Drive Consensus & Cooperation   2/11/2013 3:33:12 PM
Re: Making competitive behavior work for you
@kstaron - yes, you get it - the anaolgy of getting the same rush as your husband when he looks at his damage meter during a World of Warcraft raid is very accurate. The power of real-time feedback to modify people's behavior is enourmous. The application of this basic feedback loop to guide company workflows is what will take some companies to the next level of competitiveness and productivity.

Competition is good when channeled into constructive ends. Civilizations exist in order to channel the strivings of powerful people into socially constructive ends. Games will be a huge part of how we channel our competitive energies into constructive ends in this global real-time economy we all live in these days.

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kstaron   Game Mechanics to Drive Consensus & Cooperation   2/11/2013 1:56:22 PM
Making competitive behavior work for you
Sounds similar to an employee of the month type set up, only with more immediate feedback. It makes sense it would work in a cooperative business model given people's typical competitiveness.  I bet some workers get the same rush as my husband does when he looks at his damage meter during a world of warcraft raid.
Michael Hugos   Game Mechanics to Drive Consensus & Cooperation   2/7/2013 7:42:31 PM
Re: Peer pressure
@Susan - yes that's right. It works real well even when there is a top-down command structure in place where a boss can tell everyone what to do. Problem with top-down commands is that they tend to be over used. And then people become passive. They stop thinking for themselves and the boss winds up doing all the thinking for everybody and it takes too long and isn't effective anyway. This isn't good for the boss or for the workers.

Far better for the boss to define the goal and rules (that's the WHAT) and, then let people doing the work think for themselves and figure out HOW to achieve the goal. As long as people get timely feedback(are their actions taking them closer to or farther from the goal) to guide their actions, this approach works better than traditional top-down command and control (in my humble opinion).

People doing the work are more involved in their work and so they take more responsibility and pride and they learn to get better and better. 


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Susan Nunziata   Game Mechanics to Drive Consensus & Cooperation   2/7/2013 7:05:55 PM
Peer pressure
@Michael: Elegant solution to a problem that plagues many in project management. As we all learned in grade school, peer pressure is a powerful force, and can probably to more to motivate employees than even top-down pressure from management. I suspect this would work quite well even in instances where the project manager has direct power over the folks doing the project. No one wants to be publicly outed as a "laggard" among their peers.
Damian Romano   Game Mechanics to Drive Consensus & Cooperation   2/7/2013 10:10:13 AM
Re: Backfeed.
@MDMConsult - I think larger organizations all but ignore the feedback from rank and file employees. I guess it depends on what is being communicated. In many cases organizations should have an outreach program that offers up some sort of go-between to ensure their feedback is being evaluated. We all know of organizational developement plans that seek feedback for the sole purpose boosting moral instead of actually handling the data, manipulating it, and putting it into effect.
MDMConsult   Game Mechanics to Drive Consensus & Cooperation   2/7/2013 9:59:23 AM
Re: Backfeed.
Yes, an organization requires this type of feedback. What do you think of feedback from internal employees to the executives? By turning to great feedback resources it should help with the confusion and performance in development areas. With the right network and resources as changes occur, it should benefit. Listening is key.
Damian Romano   Game Mechanics to Drive Consensus & Cooperation   2/7/2013 8:54:48 AM
Feedback is only as effective as the employment of change based on it. The only true way to stay ahead in our current economic landscape is to allow for the necessary feedback to change and mold the way business is performed. Though sometimes even the most effective tools won't make an impact because of a failure to implement.
Michael Hugos   Game Mechanics to Drive Consensus & Cooperation   2/6/2013 9:09:40 PM
Re: Actionable and concise
Hi @impactnow,

I used MS Office apps as the front end (and some relatively simple Java code plus .Net and SQL Server on the back end) because everyone already knew how to use spreadsheets and email and navigate around our website so there was very little learning curve and more buy-in from everybody. They could go to our website and logon to a page showing what gamers would call a leaderboard - green stars, yellow faces, red frowny faces.

They could click on links there to get more detailed info. We showed people how to set their browsers so that when they logged into this page a spreadsheet would open up and automatically populate itself with the latest data and line graphs and bar charts.

The key was to just do it and not get bogged down in discussing - evaluating - funding -installing complex software until we knew if the idea would work. It was a quick easy cheap way to get started and then as we saw how things were developing then we started looking at more sophisticated tools.
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tekedge   Game Mechanics to Drive Consensus & Cooperation   2/6/2013 7:56:47 PM
Wow it is a great deal!
More and more examples of game mechanics being used in organisations gives us the feel how feedback helps us really improve performance. It is really becoming a tool with which to manage an organisation without the encumberance to deal with actual angst of telling off organisations or people who are not on par with everyone!

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