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Playing at project management

Adeline Teoh ed.
July 14, 2014

The word ‘gamification’ gets thrown around a lot. At one stage a friend of mine suggested it was the most overused word she’d heard at management conferences last year. But it’s also widely misunderstood.

I have a controlled addiction to Candy Crush. While I no longer cheat by adjusting the time and date on my phone to acquire more lives, I do play it a few times a day in between tasks to help me move from one state of mind to another. When I think about gamification, I think about some of the principles that apply to games that we might be able to apply to the way run projects.

Gamification is not about making something into a game to extract lessons or improve skills, although games can be effective at that. It’s using game psychology to improve performance. Why do you think so many sports stars become management consultants and coaches?

Achieving flow: The reason Candy Crush is so addictive is that it is designed to put players into the machine zone, a psychological term often used in relation to poker machines and gambling games. To stay in the zone we need the task to be easy enough to do to achieve flow. In other words, one step must easily and seamlessly lead to the next.

In a project, this requires planning. If you’ve delegated tasks correctly and team members have everything they need, they are going to be able to go with the flow more easily than if they need to pause to gather resources and get updates. Flow is not always encouraged, however. If you need your team to engage in high-level critical thinking, disrupting their flow will engage different decision-making faculties.

Feedback: Another aspect of gamification is reinforcement that what we are doing is right. A small amount of non-disruptive feedback at each step is the ideal amount. In Candy Crush it’s the small task of matching three candies to acquire points, animated by a bright popping effect and a disembodied voice that praises powerful combinations.

Interestingly, I noticed that agile projects do the same thing. The daily stand-ups, weekly retrospectives and processes that regularly request client feedback and input are all ways in which an agile team receives reinforcement, which often helps to motivate the team to a higher level of performance.

Challenge overcome: Lastly, the best performance often comes from challenging projects where the team can galvanise and combine skills to work through issues and solve problems. This is the equivalent of finally cracking a particularly difficult level of Candy Crush (I have spent weeks on a few). The payoff for overcoming a difficult situation or completing a challenging project is huge and a celebration should be of a corresponding size.

Here the key is to balance challenge with fun; I stopped playing Candy Crush for three months due to a difficult level that was annoying rather than fun. On the flipside, fun alone is not enough because the feeling of achievement comes from conquest and progress is a key motivating factor.

Have you ever successfully gamified a project?

Adeline Teoh ed.
Adeline Teoh is the editor of She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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