Gamify yourself

Tl;dr: As an industry we have got gamification wrong. We need to allow people to set and monitor their own targets as part of their normal jobs. On the way we will cover my personal weaknesses, Transactional Analysis, Theory X and Y, Gamification, Duolingo, Beeminder, Akrasia, Weight Loss, Organisational Metaphor and Plato’s Cave. Hang in there.

No one has ever told me what to do.

I have always waited for the sensei to arrive in a karate kid fashion. Someone who recognises my potential but kicks my arse to make it happen. Some have come close. My biology teacher at school (but not my chemistry teacher). My first editor when I was a technical author, daubing my passive prose, still warm from university, with red pen until it dripped. The occasional boss. Most successfully, of course, my wife. There was no one to guide me at university except me, leaving a degree squandered (but probably for the best). But usually I am left to drift, protected by a bristling aura of aggro that I am not aware of most of the time. A force-field of me. Sometimes it flicks back at me and I am suddenly aware of feeling defensive or self-piteous.

Usually however I am left to make my own bed, to make it well, or in moments of downward, soil it with my abject laziness. Stephen Pressfield (of the War of Art) calls it “The Resistance”. Resistance wants to break you and leave you mediocre. I have tried it all. I am now forty and overweight. I like to think big thoughts and I wring my hands at all of the thoughts unwritten. I don’t want you, dear reader, to think I consider myself a failure. I am good at what I do, a good husband, father and son. When I need to ship, I ship. When something is a passion, I am consumed. If it is a duty, I am there, present and correct.

But when it is learning a language, getting my thoughts out through my fingers, or hitting the sodding treadmill? I fold.

Extrinsic forces for personal change (known as nagging) result in a change in relationship between the nagger and naggee. In transactional analysis terms it can force people from Adult to Adult, to Adult to Child. Depending on your inner Child this can result in different responses. My inner Child is a knocky 14 old with enough bluster and misguided argumentative reasoning to make-it-your-fault. Other inner Children may sink back into the comforting blanket of early childhood. Mummy and Daddy will tell me what to do. I can carry on playing. Passivity is an unattractive trait for modern business.


I have always then looked at the Enterprise Gamification movement with derision. The thought that you could take adults and give them badges or what-not and they would start dancing around like twats at a school disco seemed a really-bad-idea. The main reason being that it is an industrial strength way to fuck with people’s incentives. Taking an activity that someone is supposed to do out of duty (such as asking my 6 year old boy to pick up the lego that he has played with) and then laying systems of gaming around it messes with the incentive. “Rufus I’ll give you a pound if you pick up your Lego,” will almost certainly result in a clear rug. It however raises the stakes about why the poor boy would ever now do for free for what he used to do out of duty.

The Seinfeld trick

I have however just taken a swift spiritual and conceptual kick to the head with the advent of some tools that are getting it right. The first is Duolingo, a language learning application on which I am scraping together some competency in Italian. It has the usual gamification bells and whistles – everything is a quiz, you need to pass the quiz to get points. The lessons are arranged in levels, you  wish to progress through the levels. You are asked to choose a target number of points to do every day — in my case 50 points. There is game currency called Lingots that are earned and can be spend. But the main driver, for me anyway, is that of “the day streak”. It tells you how many days you have hit your targets for. This is a simple application of the productivity hack known as the Seinfeld trick – attributed to the comedian Jerry Seinfeld who writes a red cross on a wall planner every day that he writes. The red crosses join up into a chain and he tries to keep the chains as long as possible – don’t break the chain.


The second mind blowing change has been my adoption of a tool that I have been aware of for a while but hadn’t tried. It is called Beeminder and it will change you. Beeminder takes the Sienfeld trick and extends it in delightful ways. The interface, based on a graph, is unabashedly geek chic, but the idea is pure genus. The basic idea is that of “Akrasia” — a concept first postulated ancient Greece. If we know in our conscious mind why a course of action is a good one, why do we act against our own best interest. If one was to make a plan to run three times per week for the outcome to become fitter and healthier, why wouldn’t you? Well, you are tired, it is raining and dark. Maybe not tonight. Therefore short terms interests trump long term goals. Beeminder takes the concept of Akrasia and tracks the goal against a graph – it makes the small goal (running tonight) part of the bigger goal (running, say 500 miles by the end of the year.) Just a graph yeah. Well no. For the full Beeminder effect, you effectively bet with your own money (with your well intentioned reflective self does) that you won’t quit (with your fallible slob of a visceral self). If you “derail”, Beeminder keeps your money. I am currently tracking eight goals with a $5 punt on my weight loss. For me the five bucks is remarkably unimportant compared to keeping each of those eight plates spinning, because… well just because. I have successfully told myself what to do.

The wifi scale

Which brings us to number three:

The third is really set of tools. I bought a wifi connected scale from Withings. It squeals to the Internet when you stand on it, and through the miracle of OAuth can let other services know. One is Beeminder, the other is the rather abysmally named MyFitnessPal. Withings also acts as an ersatz step counter in your pocket so can let MyFitnessPal know if I have an active or lazy day. Into MFP goes the estimated list of what I have shoved in my gob, and together with the likely extra energy expenditure it works out when I should stop eating.

This all works. It works very well indeed.

Theory X and Theory Y

These tools have entirely changed my thoughts about gamification. [I prefer the term persuasive technology, a term coined by BJ Fogg from Stanford] But for the enterprise believe virtually everyone is getting it profoundly and wonderfully wrong. Theory X and theory Y were theories of personal motivation defined by Douglas McGregor in the 1960s. In theory X employees were work shy and lazy and it was management’s role to whip them into shape. In theory Y we assume that employees are quite capable and keen to get on an do good things and management are there to help.

Gamification in the enterprise is all far too Theory X for my liking. It is an attempt at manipulating others for the ends of the management. Within enterprises gamification techniques risk forcing employers and employees into an Adult-Child relationship. But:

In the enterprise we need to deploy tools that allow employees to define, surface and monitor their own intrinsic goals.

Let’s consider Theory Y. People want to get on, they want to work, they want to do the right thing and at any given reflective moment they would tell you about how they want to do better work. In the moment and the hurly-burly of the day things get pushed out of the way and excuses proliferate.

This is the same as jogging, getting to the gym, learning a language and losing a bit of weight: Akrasia.

Imagine a Beeminder service for the enterprise. For now, let’s ignore the monetary aspect and let’s just play for fun and for honour. It is theirs to use, and can indeed even be entirely private. It is recommended that employees consider their own goals, and consider ways that those goals can be measured. Systems and services have APIs that allow data to be logged that represents their goals. Tickets Completed, Pages Tagged, Check-ins completed, Bugs squashed, Clients helped, Sales made. These streams of data are people’s personal KPIs and they can be shared with their managers at review time, but maybe not.

Throw the money thing back in and you are maybe messing up the incentives again and people would feel it is a big old losing machine. Do you want to go on the losing machine? No thanks mate. Make it a winning machine then? Bet some of your salary that you can hit the target? Well, you’ll cheat won’t you. No, I think this needs to be you versus the mountain. The game is doing what you are paid to, but in a better and more rewarding way by revealing all this feedback to the reflective mind. This is commitment processing software.

Organisation as machine and the temptations of Theory X

The temptation is there, and you are thinking it. You’re thinking that the organisation is like a big machine, and this is lovely data that you can used push people with and make them more efficient. The stick, the carrot and the bastard boss. I can squeeze more out of you. I can use this to put pressure on you.

No. Stop. Draw back. There is more of one way of conceptualising an organisation and the machine is tired, turgid, entirely fictional and holding us back in the last century. There are eight metaphors for the organisation. Yes eight (as defined in Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization but very well explained by Venkat Rao):

  • Organisation as machine
  • Organisation as organism
  • Organisation as brain
  • Organisation as culture
  • Organisation as political system
  • Organisation as psychic prison
  • Organisation as system of change and flux
  • Organisation as instrument of domination

Morgan talks about what makes metaphors so important – they maximise the image in our minds about what is common and make the characteristics that are not shared disappear. “That man is a lion” is a metaphor that brings us imagery of heroism, strength and bravery, we don’t think of the whiskers, the fur and the cute ears. A mechanistic view of organisations seemingly proposed by most adherents of gamification, ignores all the aspects of organisations and people that are NOT machine like. Akrasia, is exactly one of these non-machine characteristics. We are not agents with fixed parameters with programming. Rather we have different whims and fickle desires depending on the time of day and the stress we are under. We are a both little bit X and a little bit Y.

Think about the organisation in terms of organism, brain, culture and, most interestingly in terms of change and flux. Imagine allowing individuals to create and pull their own games from what they are supposed to be doing for a job. Back to the idea of Transactional Analysis, Morgan even talks about patriarchal systems in “Organisation as psychic prison” (the prison being equated to Plato’s cave, with the prisoners mistaking the shadows of the outside world for reality itself):

“Critics of patriarchy suggest that in contrast with matriarchal values which emphasise unconditional love, optimism, trust, compassion, and a capacity for intuition, creativity and happiness, the psychic structure of the male-dominated family tends to create a feeling of impotence accompanied by a fear of, and dependence on, authority.”

But, if we regard gamification as a tool of an Adult to foster his or her own self, fully aware that our wills are both strong and weak in different moments? Well, imagine the possibilities! They come to work. You chose them to work here. They are normal healthy people. They are already playing the game of life, don’t fling badges and levels at them in lieu of meaning and purpose, because they AREN’T behaving like machines enough.

This is a world of discretionary effort where people are self motivated and upon succeeding, level themselves up. If you treat people as children, there they remain – it is comforting for many to wait with beak open for mummy to return to the nest to stuff our gobs full of worms. Treat them as adults, even if that takes games then they can step into the light of self actualisation. Finally a grown-up, but never a machine.

Secret plans and clever tricks

The side project with Bynghall finally leaps fully formed from the thigh of Zeus. Intranet Directions is a place for thinking about Intranet and digital workplace strategy in a new way. Hopefully bold, never uncertain and probably wrong, but prepared to rework. The good stuff moves onwards, the bad stuff gets filed towards the back and if it were to come up in conversation polite excuses would be made.

Available in all good newsagents. Other sources of intranet strategy are available.

A machine way of thinking — the coming algorithmic apocalypse

“The target of the Jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines,” Leto said. “Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgments. Naturally, the machines were destroyed.” — Frank Herbert “Dune” [The Bulterian Jihad]

We are at a point in computing when the sum-total of all communication that goes on within organisations is recorded. The mathematics that would allow a machine to start to do things with that communication-as-data have been around for a long time, and innovations around semantic computing have come along.

At the same time we are seeing long term squeeze on costs within organisations under the banner of maximising shareholder value and increasing organic cash-flow. One of the easiest ways to do this is to reduce your headcount, or to put easily described work, such as help desks, support, operations, manufacturing and programming outside of the organisation, quite often where the workers are cheaper to employ.

I am constantly giving recommendations to intranet teams that are fundamentally recognise that they don’t have enough people to do the quality and quantity of work that they need. There is a usual lack of resources to, for example:

  • Optimise content for search
  • Work on projects while maintaining operations
  • Help people make sure their content is relevant and is up to date
  • Eat lunch or go to the loo

Meanwhile the perceived value in the corpus of that communications-as-data is building up: implicity, as in the enterprise social network; and explicitly, where the employee is expected to fill in their personal profile so people can find their expertise if it should be required.

The loose field of “social analytics” seeks to unlock this potential in creating connections and insights between people, places and things with mathematics. Some examples:

  • Consider automating classifications and information architecture using aggregate usage and semantic analysis.
  • Consider automating the extraction of people’s expertise from what they say and do, rather than what they say they do.
  • Consider improving search results by retrieving context from the user’s history of interest and discussions with people.
  • Consider automatically measuring people’s sentiments about a range of topics. Are people positive or negative about things?

This all sounds great, I’ll buy a pile of it. If this works I can make the right content appear automagically in from of the right people. What’s not to like. Well, the important bit is “if it works”. The problem is that it might make things worse.

Search as a minor example

In the intranet world we already have a chaotic algorithm making our lives a misery: Enterprise search. It sounds like a simple thing to do. Here is the corpus, index it and make it available so when someone wants something you show it to them. This is a classic wicked problem. The corpus of course is created and maintained by fallible, disparate people who are doing their own thing. They wish to publish a piece of content for immediate reasons, and discount its value to the corpus. Metadata is not set and context such as titles are purely local. When someone searches for something they get poor results. The intranet manager says: “We are getting rubbish results, let’s try tidying things up a bit.” That doesn’t really work, so they try creating best-bets manually and mucking about with weighting. That is only partially successful because the number of potential queries is vast (although the number of common queries is few), the numbers of texts in the corpus is massive, and at the heart of it is an algorithm that nobody apart from its developer really understands. At the core of a search engine is a complex bit of mathematics that provides the results. It is chaotic because for the layperson, changes to the content or the search engine do not have direct consequences on the results. They change a little and in ways that has possibly negative effects on different queries.

Any attempts to make the algorithms better has only increased the pain. Go find an intranet manager who has had to wrestle with Autonomy and ask them about it. It will be described in robust Anglo-Saxon. Semantic it might be, but try and get the pensions page up when the query is “pensions” is a non-trivial task. Intranet managers lumbered with Google Search Appliance have virtually no access to the mechanism of search, and are given little indication as to how to influence it. It an algorithmic black box shrouded in IP.Make it work like Google is the cry of the stakeholder, ignoring the fact there is a billon dollar business in Search Engine Optimisation attempting to reverse engineer Google and other search engines, and game the system end to end.

The problem is that the mathematics within these engines are not able to be communicated to those charged with looking after them. Borked search is a minor example – it only hurts organisations a little bit.But this isn’t natural mathematics. It doesn’t work like physics, determined by the characteristics of the natural world.Algorithms are programs written by people. People are not objective – they bring all their biases about how the world works to work with them. Algorithms are as much works of art as a news article on the intranet. All people are subjective and biased. All algorithms are subjective and biased. The thing is, you can argue with a person.

Let’s consider what may happen when we start unleashing this sort of maths on the populace.

Consider a piece of software that is designed to find “experts” in a field within an organisation. For the sake of argument let’s ignore any privacy or data protection concerns and we say in the requirements that it is access all areas: intranet, SharePoint team sites, enterprise social network, email, instant messaging – the works. This will necessarily will be software provided by an external vendor, as we are far an above the sort of quotidian development that most organisations have lying about. The programmer will make an array of assumptions about what “expertise” means and look for proxies available within the corpus: the amount someone talks about a concept; to whom; do they contribute initially or answer questions; how many people read the information they provide. Etc. I should point out I made those up. They may or may not be good proxies for expertise. Will the programmer be able to ask a social scientist to prove the alleged link between the proxy and expertise. Possibly, but probably not. Even if some psychometry is employed, there is no proof that that is, well, real. Will a social scientist be able to verify the weighting given to each source? Again, no.

This is a work of fiction. It no more that the guesswork of a clever-clogs.

And it will spit out a number. It might be based on something that sounds proper clever like the “k-nearest neighbour algorithm”, but it is the complexity of the real world boiled down into a reductive sticky goo. Search for experts in C++, it will give you a list. Bravo. But unlike our search engine algorithm it will have real world effects and feedbacks.

If the proxies are wrong, the inferences will be too. It is easy to mistake helpfulness or enthusiasm for expertise. If your algorithm starts crowning experts based on people being merely chatty on Yammer you could be in for some fun. Bob from IT help desk is now crowned an expert in something because he is helpful and interested in it. This validates his learning and encourages him. Increased findability of his “knowledge” results in more conversations, that drives a positive feedback mechanism. Bob is now, according to the system, an expert.

What could possibly go wrong?

Imagine a bizarre world where that expertise system repeated for every individual and every speciality within an organisation. This is a chaotic system. We have lost the ability to associate, on human terms, our inputs from our outputs. Perverse incentives and unintended consequences will become abundant. Now imagine that these mathematical loaded guns are deployed in lots of places throughout your organisation and its digital workplace, in places that you couldn’t even imagine, from choosing which projects get funding, to which emails get responded to.


We are careening into what Taleb calls the fourth quadrant – a place of disproportionate disaster where black swans abound.

I might be catastrophising. Please, someone who knows what they are actually talking about, persuade me that this isn’t the case. Software like this is renowned to be brittle. In the lab, it works. Out of the lab, it falls flat on its face. But this data is growing exponentially; so is the amount of storage, processing power and (I’m sure) VC money being thrown at this. As is people’s belief that it should be so.

Value people

Which brings me back to the quote from Dune at the top. In Dune they had got rid of intelligent machines as well as the machine-attitude. It is this machine way of thinking that I find so dangerous. We trust ourselves so little in the world of human affairs that we want machines to do it for us. We hate paying people to be human so much we are willing to swap them for machines that spit out answers; not real answers that are in fact true, but constantly available answers at zero marginal cost.

When a man comes to sell you a machine that understands humans tell him that he is mistaken. He has caught this machine-attitude. Trust humans to do the work of the heart, and value the work of humans enough to have them around to do the work.

[With thanks to @shbib for reintroducing me to the Bulterian Jihad]

The digital workplace as a ‘wicked problem'; practitioners as doctors.

I wrote this ages ago (at least a year) when I was writing “digital workplace user experience”and for some reason I didn’t publish it. I found it in my Scrivener blog post file. It is provocative, and probably entirely wrong. Hey ho.

To misquote George Orwell, most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that information and communication is in a bad way. The complex of communication and information appears to be grinding inexorably towards some form of maximum level of attention, and there doesn’t really seem to be a way out.

I would argue that the life of information and communication within businesses is a wicked problem, but practitioners attempt to solve these problems as if they are simple problems.

A wicked problem is a problem that is impossible to solve because of deep complexity and interdependencies, usually involving people and their choices. The more people involved the more wicked the problem.

Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber formalised the characteristics of wicked problems in 1973:

  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem).
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule. [There is no way to predict if they will stop]
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  • Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  • The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  • The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

There are lots of examples of wicked problems such as global climate change, nuclear weaponry, drug legislation and trafficking, and virtually every societal problem conceivable.

These are massive problems, what has this got to do with us, questions the critical reader. Well we are surrounded in our trade of information, knowledge and communication with problems that don’t seem to get any better, no matter what solutions that are thrown at them. The tools of we have such as email, content management, collaboration and social platforms were once solutions to problems. Each of them, in turn, has become a massive problem. That is the nature of a wicked problem.

Email as a wicked problem

We increase the speed and a synchronicity of communications within organisations to a point where people are overwhelmed by email. Any initiative to attempt to calm the swell becomes a further overhead: Spam filters; automatic rules; the bureaucracy involved with managing broadcast email; employees spending time deleting emails to remain within quotas.

Enterprise Search as wicked problem

We want to have enterprise search because it should be cheaper to re-find information that create it, or ask someone to remember it for us. We index the corpus. We fail to find the information we seek, so we then need to spend money for someone to manage the index. That fails too, so we pay people to improve the corpus. That fails too, so we buy another enterprise search platform.

Content management as a wicked problem

We want to codify useful explicit information within an organisation. We build a system to do so, then fill it with what we think will be useful to know. It becomes out of date and out of brand. Authors and content owners depart and entropy asserts itself. We throw redesigns and content inventories at it. Perhaps a new content management system would help so we build another and migrate all the content over. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Internal communication as a wicked problem

We want people to understand the direction the business needs to move in. We publish news stories and other electronic channels for people to read. They do not read them, nor to they improve their understanding of the businesses strategy. So more are sent at increasing volumes and costs. Different groups of communicators are created at various levels of the business requiring a bureaucracy to manage messages and timing

The fundamental wicked problem

I could go on and talk about virtually any area of specialism, but we really need to face the fundamental wicked problem. Communication, information and attention within large groups of people is hard. Solutions to any of these problems become problems themselves. There is no such thing as a solution.

Everything in our trade, in the light of wicked problems, are therefore tools of mitigation and not engineering. All we can do is attempt to make things less bad and less painful. We cannot fix these problems and to claim we can makes us an attempted solution to a wicked problem. And what do those turn into? Exactly.

So instead of being engineers and scientists set to fix a problem, perhaps we should be in the business of care. Doctors can’t cure death. They deal in mitigating its risks until it becomes inevitable and therefore maintain life with tool that are:

  • Diagnostic – understanding what’s wrong. We need to spend more time looking at the problems people are having in their work before we charge in with a solution whether than be some that we have ready to take off the shelf, or before we start designing and building more technology.
  • Analgesic – relieving pain. Our patients’ first requirement is an absence of discomfort. What can we do?
  • Antiseptic – keeping things clean to encourage natural healing
  • Antibiotic – treating infections so the healing process can start
  • Surgical – removal of the bad for the good of the whole. As a last resort what needs to be excised?
  • Palliative – care for terminal cases. Sometimes there is nothing you can do. Help make the poor thing comfortable for its last hours, and help its loved ones and dependents move on.
  • Hippocratic – do no harm. Fellow professionals, look guiltily at your shoes and repent the times that you have made things worse in the name of progress.

So next time you are tempted to believe you, the lone digital workplace professional, can fix or solve these massive and complicated problems, please frame your mind with the words “heal” and “care”.

DWUX in four tweets


Tubb elsewhere: Stowe Boyd and the intranet of the freelance future

The second of three posts IBF commissioned about the Meaning 2012 conference is up at The intranet of the freelance future

I have a lot of respect for Stowe Boyd, and it isn’t just because I dig his hat. His use of the Japanese word for Ronin (wave-man) instead of freelancer is determinedly romantic, but he admits that the freedom of the self-employed comes at a price.

If we are working towards a world of more freelancers, out-sourcers and off-shorers that bone fide regular employees within these big slabs of capital we choose to call corporations, our current tools for working-between companies are quite inadequate. There is a huge amount of innovation in the Podios of this world but again they are aiming to be places rather than protocols.

I need to be able to slip in and out of companies as I do work for them. That needs to be easy and native, and at the moment it is neither.

Tubb elsewhere: Meaning 2012 and death to email

I had a thoughtful day at the Meaning 2012 conference in Brighton, courtesy of my friends at IBF. They asked me to write some blog posts about what would be relevant to the Intranet and Digital Workplace crowd.

Accidentally falling into the world of co-working and social business while being a member of the Hub, first at Kings Cross and then at Westminster I used to think that the corporate world and social-business-for-good were separate worlds. Now I’m not so sure. Everything is deeply inter-twingled.

Anyway, over on IBForum you can read my write up of Luis Suarez’ presentation. The IBMer that gave up email: Breaking the chain – death to email

Lots of intriguing thoughts from a grab bag of thought nuggets. Has it led me to hope for the future of business? Sort of. I see and end to unrealistic hope that anything in business can ever be perfect. More on that soon.


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