Space Invaders and project management

May 2012 

Space InvadersTy Kiisel believes that by merging gaming with project management you can get more from your teams.

The first time I remember ever playing a serious video game it was Space Invaders. I was sitting in a little cafe in Japan at a table that was actually the game itself. I must admit I wasted a little bit of time at that cafe over the next couple of months trying to improve my score. It was 1979 or 1980 and I don’t think Space Invaders had made it to the USA yet.

Since that time, video games have become far more sophisticated and I am not any better at them now than I was Space Invaders. I’m just not a gamer. I have kids that are gamers, work with people who are gamers and have younger friends (that when cornered) will even admit to being gamers - I’m just not one of them. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy playing video games, I’m just not very good at them.

When my kids were younger and we would play video games together, they pretty much cleaned my clock every time. I couldn’t devise a handicap system that was even close to penalising my ten-year-old enough to keep me in the game.

With that said, I still enjoy playing the games. Not too long ago I read an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal written by Rachel Emma Silverman about companies around the world that are not only allowing their employees to play games, they’re encouraging it.

‘They’re deploying reward and competitive tactics commonly found in the gaming world to make tasks such as management training, data entry and brainstorming seem less like work,’ says Silverman.

When she describes how companies like IBM and Deloitte Touch are using games to engage the workforce, she writes, ‘Employees receive points or badges for completing jobs or meeting time limits for assignments, for example. Companies also may use leaderboards, which let players view one another’s scores, to encourage friendly competition and motivate performance...’

I can almost hear the collective grown from all of my peers who are sporting a little grey around the ears.

However, although I’m not convinced I would respond to the gamification of the workplace, I’m willing to try anything that promises to do a better job of engaging the workforce in the project management process. In fact, I’m convinced that’s the biggest challenge for project leaders today.

The big question is - does this work?

I have to admit that I haven’t had much experience with this in the workplace and don’t know if making my job a game would make me any more productive or even any better at it. With that being said, I don’t want to be a focus group of one; and the results seem to suggest that it is working for at least some types of work.

Traci Sitzmann, an assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado Business School says, ‘So far, the tactic has proven effective. Employees trained on video games learned more factual information, attained a higher skill level and retained information longer than workers who learned in less interactive environments.’

The analysts have even weighed in on this approach. ‘Tech-industry research firm Gartner estimates that by 2010, some 70 per cent of large companies will use this technique for at least one business process,’ writes Silverman. Additionally, market research firm M2 has predicted that revenue from gamification software and consulting will rise from its’ current less than $100 million, to $938 million by 2014.

Not too long ago, AtTask commissioned Forrester to do some research that in light of this trend is interesting. 40 per cent of knowledge workers surveyed don’t believe their managers understand how their individual contributions impact corporate objectives. The number jumps to 60 per cent when they were asked about the executives in their organisations.

I’m sure most project leaders probably feel like they have a pretty good handle on their team’s contribution to project and corporate objectives, but for about half of the workforce the perception is different - and we all know that perception is reality.

Gamification has the potential to do a couple of things that traditional project management approaches have not been able to do very successfully so far:

  1. Engage the team by making the completion of tasks fun. Let’s face it, many of the tasks project team members spend time on are not the most exciting things associated with their jobs. Gamifying the task completion process has the potential to make otherwise mundane tasks at least a little more enjoyable. And, although I don’t think I would respond to these types of games at work, I have found myself interacting with gaming elements as a consumer, which makes me wonder, ‘Why wouldn’t I respond to a gaming element associated with my work?’
  2. Regularly recognise team member accomplishments. Of course gamification isn’t the only way to do this, but somehow institutionalising the way organisations recognise achievement is important. The millennial generation for example, has become accustomed to an almost constant stream of feedback regarding what they’re doing. It’s been a part of their experience in school and is what they have come to expect in a healthy, collaborative environment. What’s more, I have found that I don’t mind too much if my accomplishments are recognized or I receive some regular positive feedback either - and I’m a boomer.

It’s easy for the grey-hairs like me to argue, ‘This whole gamification thing just panders to the younger generation’s short attention span.’ I don’t think that’s completely accurate. I don’t think there’s any question that traditional approaches to how we manage projects and lead people haven’t been very successful at engaging the team to take ownership and step up performance to a higher level. If something like gamification of the project management process with do that, I’m all for it. We should embrace it.

For the record, I’m also a big fan of making the process more social by implementing communication and collaboration tools that are more social media-like, democratising how projects are planned and tasks are assigned, and making team members more autonomous. I don’t think the way we traditionally approach project management works very well anymore and I’m looking for out-of-the-box approaches that might contribute to a more successful project environment. Heresy? Probably.

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    Bob Hughes wrote on 3rd May 2012

    In the UK public sector we already have gamification of tasks only they are called 'government targets'. Among the drawbacks of the approach is that people work towards the measurable score and not towards true objective of the organisation e.g. pupils passing a particular examination rather than education in something useful.

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