Sunday, June 17, 2012

Absolutes in Strategy

I read a great editorial by Dave Johnson in the June issue of Industrial Safety and Hygiene News (a publication I submit trade articles to a few times a year).  The editorial focuses on what happens when companies have explicit goals with a zero in them.  Zero injuries.  Zero defects.  Zero customer complaints.  

The problem with these absolute goals is that when employees are under the gun to achieve perfection, it increases anxiety and stress to levels that can hurt performance on all dimensions, not just the one that is supposed to be zero.  The pressure is extra high for a zero goal because you could have perfect performance for 89 days and then on the last day of the quarter some random event that you have no control over keeps you from achieving your goal. There goes your positive evaluation, your chance of promotion, or your merit raise.  This kind of pressure can focus attention so narrowly that other things slip by.

Another problem with absolute goals is that they are often great long term objectives but unrealistic in the short term.  A new CEO takes over a company with a really high frequency of customer complaints and wants to shake things up.  So she implements a new goal of zero.  But there is no way anyone will hit this number right away when the history is so bad.  It just takes time to change the processes, the mentality, and the company brand in the customers’ eyes.  So the immediate goals need to be more attainable.  When there is no chance of making a goal, employees often don’t even bother to try.  In this case, you never get to zero.  Or, employees will cover up defects and injuries or fudge the numbers.  Injuries become “visits to first aid for a bandage” so they don’t count.  The untreated injury gets worse and more expensive to treat later. 

Instead, he suggests something like this for  a high level strategic goal “We are striving for zero because this company is striving to be world class, best in class, in all facets of the business.  We will give you the tools, the training, the support and the freedom to come up with your own ideas to reach zero injuries, zero customer complaints, zero product defects, zero downtime.  If we don’t get there, we’re going to get damn close enough to make an unmistakable positive difference for you personally and for the business.”

And then in the actual Performance Management System (some of my previous ideas on these here) be realistic and use best practices for goal setting.  Then you get the best of both worlds.

What makes a game work?

Back to some Jane McGonigal topics.  I found my book.  (If you missed the first two posts: Intro  and Starting Points)

What makes a game work?  What isn’t necessary but makes a game better? 

In an attempt to boil down the whole book into a few key points, I tried to tease out what she considers the essential components for a game to work - as well as the attributes that aren’t necessary but make it more effective.  This is the list I came up with.

Games have to have:
  • A goal: The goal is the outcome that players work to achieve.  It orients participation and provides a sense of purpose that gets players involved. 
  • Rules: Rules are limitations on behavior  that constrain easy answers and push creativity and strategic thinking.  If the game is too easy, it wouldn’t be much fun.  If it has no rules, there is no sense of “playing.”
  • Feedback: Feedback tells players that they are on track, how far they have to go, and motivates continued activity. Without feedback, players would get bored and lost pretty quickly.  It needs to be clear (or include a kind of designed-in ambiguity that I will try to get to in a future post).  Fast feedback is usually best, but this is relative to the pace of the game. If you only make one move per day, then there is no need to get feedback in 5 minutes.  The feedback also has to be aligned with the games purpose and rules. If you did something wrong, what rule did you break?  If you earned points, what goal did you make progress on?  
  • Voluntary participation: Players have to knowingly and willingly accept the goal, rules, and feedback of the game.  Otherwise, it is called work. Voluntariness makes it fun (not work) safe (because you can quit if it isn’t fun) and more motivating (because we like fun stuff).
  • Hope of success: You don’t have to win every time, but you have to feel like you at least CAN win, perhaps when you get better at the game.  Games are no fun if they are too hard to win or if the competition is too good.  Repeated failure is OK if the player can rationalize that they are getting better and might win later.
 Games are better when they have:
  • Voluntary obstacles:  This calibrates the game’s difficulty.  If it gets too easy, you can make it harder by adding an extra obstacle.  If the game is mismatched between players, one player can add an obstacle that the others don’t have (I’ll play with one hand).  Games can be designed so that this isn’t necessary, but it covers you for situations where play is unexpectedly uneven.
  • Intrinsic rewards:  Some games are fun even if they are just mindless (word search).  But they are even better when you feel a sense of accomplishment, self-worth, and that kind of thing.
  • Evolving: Games can get stale when they are always the same.  If you were stuck on level one of Angry Birds, pretty soon you would win every time with a maximum score and there wouldn’t be much reason to keep playing.  But if each level is different/harder/new challenges/etc then you don’t get bored or plateau on your performance level.
  • Fiero: This is a term she uses to refer to the competitive aspect of the game.  It doesn’t have to be competitive against another player.  How many times have you yelled at the dead troll in the fantasy game or the computer opponent in single player chess?  But it is even better when there is a real person.  We instinctively like to trash talk.  Whooping it up and high fiving a teammate. 
  • Ambient sociability: This is when you have a player community where players can share strategies, scores, successes with other people they may never have met but who are linked because they also enjoy the game.  The Web has created orders of magnitude more opportunity for this attribute.
  • Social connectivity: This is when you are playing along with someone you were already connected with outside the game.  You can be proud of your friend’s success, even if it was against you.  The stronger the external bond, the more of this you get by playing together.

There are also some things that we often associate with games, but she says are not necessary:
  • Competition: there are lots of games like puzzles that you play alone.  There are also lots of social games now where every player is on the same team and the goal is to achieve something together.
  • Extrinsic rewards: Many games have points, win/loss records, and other tangible records of your play.  But this is not necessary to make a game fun or successful.
  • Interactivity: Again, there are lots of games you can play alone that are still fun.
 I will try to pick out key points about what makes games work, either getting into more detail, investigating why these attributes are important (or disagreeing perhaps), and discussing examples that illustrate something interesting.

Also, I want to think about if these attributes are similar with gamification rather than game design.  My instinct is that many of them should still be relevant, but probably not all of them and/or not in the same way.