Challenges to Gamifying Project Management

Challenges to Gamifying Project Management

Gamification has been a hot buzzword in web marketing circles for several years, now. It refers to awarding badges, points, perks or other digital prizes to web site visitors who take desired actions, like registering an account, leaving a comment or rating content. With estimates as high as 170 million active gamers in the US accustomed to “leveling up” by accumulating points, the strategy has proven very successful on customer-facing web sites.

With such runaway success, businesses have naturally begun to explore how to deploy similar systems inside the company, as well. Every organization needs to encourage some behaviors that no one likes to do, or recognize exceptional performance. Why not use gamification to reward them?

In the area of learning systems and social engagement, solutions from Rypple, Yammer and Bunchball have begun to find traction in the enterprise. But bread-and-butter productivity apps like office suites and project management applications have been a harder sell.

In our research, we routinely hear the following objections:

  • Cheaters always prosper. Often referred to as gaming the system, businesses are wary of systems that can easily be fooled into awarding prizes you didn’t earn. Cheating is less problematic with customer-facing systems, but inside the enterprise, businesses need to rely on the performance data they receive — especially if it is used for important processes like performance reviews. As an ironic indicator of the state of gaming protection in the industry, the Gamification Summit recently had to cancel their contest of the best gamification applications because they discovered their voting process had been gamed.
  • We have met the enemy and he isn’t us. Enterprises are reluctant to introduce competition between teammates in work teams. Again, in public-facing systems, having losers has little negative effect, but in project teams, managers seek to motivate the entire team. Workplace studies have shown that carrot/stick motivators have only short-term positive effects, and often result in bitterness, feeling passed over and accusations of favoritism. We hear time and again “we compete against our competitors, not ourselves.”
  • Farmville task management. Enterprises are already battling the constant distraction of facebook, YouTube and PC games. Even employees who are not intentionally gaming the system can get overly focused on winning badges, tricking out their profile and socializing. Businesses fear that gamifying task management can easily become one more distraction from the actual work at hand.

However, gamification is too compelling to be ignored, and if these objections can be addressed, it can prove to be a powerful kick start to enterprise productivity. For example, cheating can be addressed with a vetting process. Universities have managed this problem for centuries. Adjusting the incentives toward cooperation and away from intra-team competition can support team building, and keeping the system stingy enough that a constant string of awards won’t distract workers is another positive step.