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Play to Win: How Gamification can give companies an edge in Innovation and Strategy Execution

Have you ever watched someone play Candy Crush, Angry Birds or last year’s biggest hit, Pokémon Go? They play at home, on the bus, on the train, even when walking down the street! Simply observing the raised eyebrows and laser-like focus of the eyes is testament to the highly engaging nature of games. Not only are they engaging, but they naturally encourage problem solving and innovation by presenting obstacles to overcome.

Zooming into the workplace presents a slightly different picture: Gallup’s 2016 State of Global Workplace study revealed that a staggering 84% of Australian workers are either not engaged or enthusiastic about innovating in the workplace.[i] This is quite the contrast to the engagement and drive to innovate we see amongst game players.

More than ever, organisations are striving for every source of competitive advantage. Despite this, organisations are not effectively using their largest untapped potential resource: people.

What if there was a way to harness the heightened level of engagement, drive, and focus observable in gaming to drive business outcomes? Specifically, to:

  1. Foster better and more dynamic problem solving and drive innovation in organisations
  2. Accelerate strategy execution

This is where gamification comes into play. Contrary to popular belief, gamification isn’t about playing games or making tasks entertaining, although enjoyment is likely to be a by-product. Rather, in a business context, gamification applies principles of game design and mechanics (i.e. providing a challenge, creating competition and rewarding success).  These principles aim to ‘drive business objectives and motivate people through data’ as explained by Rajat Paharia[ii], who has written about gamification in the workplace. Industry analyst firm Gartner suggests gamification can actually change the brain’s chemistry to influence how employees feel and react to new concepts, radically transforming performance.

Since the early 2000s, some basic elements of gamification have been employed by businesses, and have become increasingly common since 2010 as social and reward elements have been used to increase loyalty and engagement. For example, the education industry has applied leader-boards, timed-challenges, virtual badges and certificates in online learning platforms such as Kaplan University and Harvard Business Simulations in order to motivate greater student engagement and learning. Nike in particular has applied digital elements in its Nike+ apps. Use of real time data analytics and integration with social media platforms have underpinned gamification features such as leaderboards benchmarked against users in social networks, as well as real-time audio-feedback and progress tracking to drive user engagement.

More recently, Dominos Enterprises leveraged these concepts to demonstrate how gamification can be applied to drive innovation in product development and marketing. The Pizza Mogul app and website allows customers to design their own pizza and brand which is then shared with their social networks.  Designers can earn a cut from every slice sold – and one ‘pizza-preneur’ has earnt an impressive $50,000 in the first four months of using the app.

Underpinning the success of this gamified approach to customer engagement is autonomy and reward, users having a stake in the outcome, and incorporating competition and collaboration to facilitate wins. These elements can all be applied by organisations to drive innovation internally and from amongst their own employees. To encourage continual employee engagement and product innovation through gamification, organisations should:

1. Provide autonomy and reward ‘problem solvers’ with a stake in the outcome

When applied effectively, gamification empowers employees/customers to ‘think and act like owners.’ The Pizza Mogul objective and approach was simple: let users experiment and problem solve to create a pizza that sells, and reward them with a percentage of the profits. Directly linking the creator’s personal success to the business objectives incentivised continuous commitment to the objective.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. For instance, not all Pizza Mogul users were motivated by the potential to earn money. For many, it provided intangible benefits such as an ‘entrepreneur status’ and public recognition by sharing their creations on social media. For others, instead of ‘pocketing their dough’, they had the option to ‘doughnate’ the funds raised to charity.

2. Incorporate competition and collaboration structures to facilitate ‘wins’

Successful applications of gamification incorporate social elements.  As game-designer Jane McGonigal points out in her TED Talk, gamification has the effect of ‘weaving a tight social fabric’[iii]. She suggests ‘There’s a lot of interesting research that shows we like people better after we play a game with them, even if they’ve beaten us badly…’ Applying this, Dominos and Nike both integrated social networking platforms into the game experience, with interactions expanding beyond the internal site community to peers and potential customers.

A key takeaway for organisations is that the application of gamification to drive innovation can be optimised if it isn’t simply restricted to an immediate group of customers or employees. Instead, customers and employees should be rewarded for information sharing, collaboration efforts and activities that tap into their social networks to generate referral traffic, new customer insights for innovation and creative ways to solve problems. These ‘social structures’ help expand the appeal for customers and employees, increase the potential number of users and in doing so maximise the opportunity for the gamification platform to drive innovation.


A rapid feedback loop and strong narrative will accelerate strategy execution

In a typical gaming experience, an anticipated ‘ding’ sound of success, ‘+1 skills’ badge or some other indicator to signal that you have ‘levelled up’ fuels your desire to tackle the next challenge.   Similarly, the level of problem solving and user motivation will be influenced by the frequency and quality of feedback users receive for their ideas and actions. In the Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer explain that progress is likely the greatest driver of worker motivation and engagement. Unlike the traditional employee performance cycle and its often fragmented annual or at best bi-annual feedback loop, a gamification approach enables organisations to provide real-time, incremental feedback (e.g. receiving a new skill badge or progressing towards a more challenging role). These faster feedback loops enable users to quickly linkURL consequences to action and adjust their approach through a process of iterative discovery to drive towards the overall objective.

In Dominos’ case, the users receive immediate feedback indicators based on likes, comments, shares and sales of their pizza benchmarked against others. Importantly, gamification has enabled a more agile approach to product development within Dominos itself as the company adjusts the pizza products and branding according to the customer feedback and analytics obtained from website and app interactions.

However, a rapid feedback loop alone is not necessarily enough to drive behavioural change and accelerate toward achieving strategic outcomes. For customers and employees alike, a clear understanding of the journey and the destination helps them navigate this ongoing process of feedback and change. This is where a strong narrative becomes essential. As game designer Jane McGonigal explains, overlaying a strong narrative to the gamification elements will provide purpose and help users visualise the ‘epic win’ since people thrive on being attached to ‘awe-inspiring missions’.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for the application of gamification. However, based on our experience, some of the things that you can incorporate into your employee innovation approach might include:

  1. Allowing employees and customers to ‘think and act like owners’
  2. Embedding social elements that prompt competition and collaboration, and
  3. Driving focus through rapid feedback loops and motivation through a strong narrative with specific objectives.

These core principles will both encourage innovation through the experimental and iterative nature of game-play and support accelerated strategy execution through employee motivation; both of which might convey aspects of critical advantage in today’s rapidly-changing environment.

[i] Gallup, State of the Global Workplace 2016

[ii] Rajat Paharia, Loyalty 3.0: How to Revolutionise Employee and Customer Engagement With Big Data and Gamification

Jane McGonigal