Small victories

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with a substantial number of the people who work for the WPP agency The Partners. The gist of the talk was about the power of analogy in designing systems, and how fun analogies could in turn deliver experiences that would solve otherwise thorny issues through having activities that could be intrinsically positively reinforcing. A shortened version of the talk was given at the recent Metaphwoar event, and a video of that should be available soon.

The final part of the talk returned to a theme I’ve been exploring in recent months – the evil that is the average professional services firm’s timesheet system. These systems are generally hated, and managing the recording of time is a perpetual headache for all involved. This generally leads to more and more draconian measures being made to force people to complete their timesheets with increasingly destructive effect.

I went off on a little flight of fancy, and suggested that the whole thing should be replaced with a water cannon game similar to those found on seaside piers and the like. It was sort of tongue-in-cheek, but I would love to do this for real one day. The point was that something fun and engaging, in the right circumstances, would have people clamouring to complete their timesheets rather than perpetually putting it off. In a fun and creative environment like a marketing agency, it could work wonders…

I was chatting to Tony from The Partners yesterday, and it seems like my talk struck a chord. Sadly they haven’t implemented the “Timesheet Blasta” concept yet, but the finance team have put in a strong element of positive reinforcement – Skinnerfying the processes, if you will. Every week, the first floor of people in the office to complete timesheets on time win chocolate. The result? Timesheets being completed on time like never before. It’s a win for Skinner!

Well, maybe… Our friends Campbell and Goodhart might be rearing their heads a little: Tony did say that some of the timesheets are coming in a little too “on time”. Which illustrates the challenge of gamification: if the reward mechanisms aren’t intrinsic within the behaviour one is trying to promote, people focus on winning the prize and will find ways to do it that aren’t necessarily what was the expected method (ie there is a tendency to cheat). If you can design a method for how a desired behaviour can become rewarding in its own right – like the lanyard collection box I’ve spoken about before – you mitigate the risk of people focusing hitting targets irrespective of method. The team element of the approach taken at The Partners probably mitigates this risk quite well.

I was thrilled at the news. It’s funny, sometimes, the ways in which we get a sense of achievement. Helping a marketing agency to get timesheets done on time is up there for me as one of the high spots of 2012, and anyone who knows the sector will appreciate quite the challenge achieved.

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