Of all the things that can get people deeply engaged in their work, the single most important is making progress — even if that progress is a seemingly small step forward.
This is the progress principle. As obvious as it might sound, the motivational power of progress is a big surprise to most managers. In a survey of nearly 700 managers , asking them to say which of five employee motivators they think is most important, a mere 5% ranked progress as number one — way behind conventional motivators like incentives and recognition.
They should have placed it way ahead. To keep a team jazzed about its work, managers must start thinking like video game designers. Managers may be unaware of how important progress is to human motivation, but it's one of the first secrets that every good video game designer learns.
Of all entertainment forms, video games are among the most engaging. People, especially young men between the ages of 15 and 35, spend enormous amounts of time and money immersed in the fantasy worlds of the massively multiplayer online game space. What keeps them hooked? To a large extent, it's two additional secrets of the video game designer: constant progress indicators and achievement markers. Virtually all video games feature "progress bars" that are constantly visible onscreen as players engage in the game. These bars are tangible indicators of how close the player is to reaching the next major game level, the next step within the current level, and the next mini-goal within the current step.
Achievement markers are a bit like the badges that Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts can earn for mastering particular tasks. In a video game, achievements attained by each player — for any of a staggering array of ever-changing challenges throughout the game — are posted for all players to see.
By the way, that future is now, people: The Boy Scouts last year have officially introduced a video games badge into their awards curriculum. Earning the belt loop requires explaining the ESRB video game rating system, officially inking video game sessions into your calendar along with homework and chores and learning to play a new “approved” video game.
Truly effective video game designers know how to create a sense of progress for players within all stages of a game. Truly effective teachers do this in the classroom for their students. Truly effective managers do the same for their subordinates. Here are three particularly effective techniques:
1. Keep everyday progress on your mental agenda. Of course, before you can mark progress, people have to actually make progress. So the first step is to support progress every day, by creating a "climate of attention." Most project review meetings, which involved top managers asking challenging questions of project team members, constructively shaped projects for the better.
2. Find small wins even in setbacks. The new product development work of the teams we studied was very difficult, technically, and they suffered frequent setbacks. Create a climate of psychological safety, where people didn't fear being punished if they admitted mistakes or encountered failure in trying a new idea.
3. Mark progress in many ways, large and small. Most new-product-development teams had a weekly meeting specifically devoted to noting their progress against goals, analyzing and drawing lessons from setbacks encountered, and making any necessary course-corrections. Usually, the overall progress was small, but team leaders helped the scientists and technicians see how they were moving forward on their pathway.
Does your organization have a climate of attention to progress? Are there progress indicators and achievement markers? Do they work?
Thanks to Teresa Amabile (Professor of Business Administration) who researches what makes people creative, productive, happy, and motivated at work. With Steven Kramer she coauthored The Progress Principle