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The Silver Medal Trap: Gamification In Productivity

Author: James Barton

Published May 2020

What with one thing and another, the Tokyo Olympics has had to be postponed. This is a shame for a load of reasons, but the thing I am going to miss the most is observing one of the most interesting psychological/physiological reactions… watching someone receive a silver medal.


Next time you get a chance, watch the faces of the athletes being awarded medals.

Gold is obvious…

Gold is obvious. You are being recognised as being the very best in your field. There is no-one better (in that moment anyway) than you.


Bronze is also interesting. Most of the time the people are glad to be there, recognising that they probably weren’t realistically in the hunt for gold or exceeding expectations after a personal best season.


Silver medal, however, is the most interesting one to look at. If you look carefully at the eyes, the light just isn’t quite there. Someone else beat them to gold – they were *that* close to the summit and fell just short. The sadness is deep; hidden, for the most part, but definitely there.

The value of gold

Of course, most of us mere mortals would think that receiving an Olympic medal should be one of the best every feelings in the sporting world. The only reason it is not is because of the value the person puts on gold.


Motivation theory says that we are ‘goal-making machines’ and that we are always up for the challenge; having a gold standard provides (for most of us) a healthy goal to strive towards.


The reality is that it is actually hugely demotivating. You train, sacrifice, push as hard as you can and achieve silver. Second place. Not the best. Inferior.


The proliferation of gamification

This is why it’s so interesting to see the proliferation of gamification in productivity enablement. The drive for scores, leader boards, winners all in an effort to drive improvements or success.


We all know that the biggest shifts in productivity occur when we focus at the middle of the curve. Top performers will always be top performers, bottom performers mostly follow Newton’s first law – therefore we look to the middle for real change.


Displaying a leader board that shows the same people consistently at the top is therefore counterproductive and self-serving to those at the top (who probably suggested the leader board in the first place to meet some narcissistic desire for their name in lights).


Is it any wonder that such practices are now banned in France and Germany, and seen as culturally unacceptable across the middle east and in Japan?


No-one likes to be shamed, and despite empirical evidence to the contrary, our western approach is still deemed to be the best.

Three types of people

So what does work? You hear a lot of talk about replacing leader boards with badges, awards or trophies – the more you do, the more you get.


I read a recent article said that there are three types of people:


  1. Those that need affiliation
  2. Those that need achievement
  3. Those that need power


Really!? How they based a 60-page article on this premise is extraordinary, but it sucks people in to spending a small fortune on gamification models.


The same report then goes on to promote a Candy Crush model – leveraging the desire to get the next badge or award – as something we should replicate in productivity to assist in adoption and usage.

This is not about levelling up

I have no doubt that there are people out there that do like these sorts of things, but I worry deeply that if the only reason they are using my sales productivity app is so that they can win their next badge, we have massively missed the point of productivity and we are measuring the wrong thing.


For me, I don’t fall into any of the three types outlined above. I believe that the reward for a good app is a better app.


For example, we are currently building out our new digital learning operating system, DLaaS, and with it will come the first true AI enablement platform that will bring individual learning journeys to sellers giving them in the moment, bite sized training when they need it the most. And the more they use it, the more precise the training can be.

We know giving the right training to the right person at the right time can be transformational to their productivity, their career and their success.


This is not about your ability to ‘level up’ or collect a new avatar; this about digitally transforming how we learn.

In conclusion…

Let’s leave gamification to Candy Crush… productivity needs to be driven by intelligence not badges.