Applying the Fun Theory at work

Fun at work

Fun at work

Sometimes, people simply don’t want to do what you want or need them to do.

Then what?

For people at work, the main motivational techniques involve money and fear. But when you’re trying to change behavior, there are 6 sources of influence. And increasing at least one of those 6, personal motivation, can be more fun and more effective than you might have ever experienced at your firm.

(Note: although it turns out to be a simple concept, the secret ingredient you’ll need is at the end of the post.)

What we normally do

This week at work, I had to take a required online course and hit some buttons in the performance review system. If you’ve ever had to do tasks like this at work, you might recognize this pattern:

  1. You get an email instructing you about required tasks and why they’re important.
  2. You get more emails reminding you about the deadline.
  3. Your manager gets a report detailing poor completion rates.
  4. You get a threatening email detailing consequences for not completing the task.
  5. Those who failed to complete the task receive one or more penalties.

This oft-repeated pattern leaves everyone feeling irritated and disengaged. Yet the whole thing could have been fun, with more people completing the tasks more quickly.

The Fun Theory: The famous examples

The Fun Theory, an initiative of Volkswagen, is a simple concept:

“…something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.”

Piano StairsIt started with a few inspired projects. The 2-minute videos that capture the before and after are beautiful and delightful (and watched over 30 million times). One asked:

“Can we get more people to choose the stairs by making it fun to do?”

So they transformed a subway staircase into “Piano Stairs”. And 66% more people than usual chose the stairs over the escalators.

Bottle Bank ArcadeThen they focused on garbage and asked:

“Can we get more people to throw their rubbish in the bin by making it fun to do?”

“Can we get more people to use the bottle bank by making it fun to do?”

And by transforming bins into something that gave people a bit of joy, they transformed the experience. As a result, people deposited 230% more trash in the “World’s Deepest Bin” than in a bin nearby. They used the “Bottle Bank Arcade” 50 times more than the traditional machine.

Watch the videos. Look at the faces. See and hear the joy. No threats, no penalties. Just evidence that appealing to an individual’s intrinsic motivation is better on many levels.

Fun everywhere

Speed Camera LotteryThe Fun Theory now sponsors an open competition to recognize “thoughts, ideas and inventions that help prove the fun theory.” The winner of this year’s prize, Kevin Richardson, asked:

 “Can we get more people to obey the speed limit by making it fun to do?”

Kevin’s ingenious idea was “The Speed Camera Lottery”.

It’s routine these days for cities to photograph speeders and send them a summons. But what about those that don’t speed? Kevin’s idea was to take a portion of the revenue from speeding tickets and use that to fund a lottery. Every person who obeyed the law was automatically entered and, in effect, given a free lottery ticket.

That simple idea – providing a reward for doing the right thing – resulted in a 22% decrease in the average speed. The Speed Camera Lottery and the numerous other entries in the competition expanded my sense of the possible applications of fun.

The secret ingredient

You don’t need an engineering team to make things fun. Inspired people have even made men’s bathroom’s cleaner (“80% less spillage!”) by simply applying decals of a small fly in each urinal. (A wide range of targets is now available.)

So, if even the most basic behaviors can be made more fun while measurably improving effectiveness, why don’t we see more of this at work?

The secret is having employees who care, who are engaged.

Disengaged employees at all levels rely on the same crude, ineffective carrots and sticks we’ve used at work for decades. For them, motivation is something you do to people. But as famed psychologist Edward Deci put it:

“Instead of asking ‘How can I motivate people?’ we should be asking ‘How can I create the conditions within which people will motivate themselves?’”

If you want to change people’s behavior, if you really care about your job and the people around you, then tap into all 6 sources of influence. And make it fun.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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27 Responses to Applying the Fun Theory at work

  1. Jon Bidwell says:

    Your quote from Deci at the very end is the critical point…how do we find, select and nurture leaders that have the emotional intelligence to size up and create the conditions where motiviation is self driven, not imposed? As you point out, this is not always obvious. George Will included a wonderful quote years ago in one of his columns. “Whereupon being told that the University of Chicago ranked dead last in a survey of quality of campus social life, a U of C senior replied, “but of course, the measurement of fun is not linear””. We’re looking hard at how we can start to create more a “game” around certain tasks–particularly in our firm’s internal social communities to encourage behaviors that would have otherwise been coerced. One question though…why is it that HR, an area that theoreticially should be more “in touch”, is the first to default to the “beatings will decrease when performance improves” approaches. Still find that puzzling.

    • John Stepper says:

      I share your observation about HR. It seems to me the people in both HR (and Internal Comms) have such tremendous potential to transform what work could be. And yet, largely, they just keep doing what they’ve been doing.

      For the most part, those divisions are instruments of management practices that have never worked very well but which we’re all accustomed to. Such a waste.

  2. Sam G says:

    Great post. I noticed you didn’t use the word “gamification”. 🙂

    What I thought when I went through the post is… ok the speeding thing or the recycling thing are great but how do I apply them in my organization when I don’t have the authority to go out, buy the equipment, and implement these things?

    The urinal example is great, and low cost to boot! It would be interesting to see the difference with the target approach vs. a sign saying “we’ve noticed a lot of pee on the floor, please be more careful”. 😉

  3. John Stepper says:

    Hello, Sam. I’m glad you brought up gamification. Because the idea of making things a game (or, more generally, fun) is important but, for sustainable change, it’s only useful *in the context of using all 6 sources of influence*.

    Using the example I mentioned of taking the required course, simply adding points or making it a contest might change appeal to some people and might irritate others. But taking a more comprehensive approach would feel very different. Here are some examples:

    Personal motivation: Make it fun. Share engaging stories that make me care. Thank individuals publicly for completing it.

    Personal ability: Provide clear instructions and access to more help if I need it.

    Social motivation: Show influential people in the organization modeling the behavior (not just exhorting or threatening but doing it themselves). Tell me how many of my friends are already doing it.

    Social ability: Connect me to other people who are experts if I need help. Provide team awards if everyone in our group completes the task.

    Structural motivation: Yes, extrinsic motivators have a place. But think of the Speed Camera Lottery. You can still issue tickets while rewarding people who are doing what you ask.

    Structural ability: Change the physical environment to make it convenient. Make sure the course works on an iPad. And that links to the course are visible in popular web sites so I don’t have to hunt for them.

    That’s why I referred to the Influencer checklist twice. Applying the fun theory at work is an important part, but only a part, of a smart, effective approach to “create the conditions within which people will motivate themselves.”

    • Sam G says:

      The idea to promote your post about working out loud – getting started came from the influencer checklist – eg. instead of telling people who didn’t use the tool “here’s a way you can start”, make a suggestion to the people who are already advocating for the tool “hey, here’s a way you can help others”.

  4. Christoph Thiede says:

    Just read your post coming back from a hard day’s worth of wildlife watching in Masai Mara / Kenia – and though: spot on!
    I just had the same experience with regards to Web-trainings I had to finish before end of Jan in order not to create a problem for me and more importantly my manageress, because I do like the environment she creates for our team and me.
    Still i will certainly forward your post to my department consisting of some 80 odd people including managers and bossbosses, add some few word of my own and see what comes from it 🙂
    Thx again for your Sunday’s thoughts and a wee kick stirring me to action
    – however i will wait another two weeks until i return to work to do so 😉
    Bests and hope to meeting you again

  5. John says:

    John – Another fine post. It would be nice to leave the house in the morning and head off to “fun” instead of “work”. Unfortunately, most organizations continue to try and lead by intimidating employees with the fear of job loss. Creating a positive, fun environment can go a long away versus the negative overhanging big stick approach.

  6. Maggie says:

    I really enjoyed this post and would like to apply these principles in my job. Too often, managers start out with intentions like this and end up doing something that’s patronizing, thinly veiled draconian quotas, or just plain dumb. The piano project was such an enlightened, creative solution.

  7. Ivan says:

    Isn’t there a difference between “fun” and wit? The trouble with making things “fun” is that you get dangerously close to treating people like children. We don’t go to work to have “fun”. But a degree of wit in communication does actually treat people as if they have some intelligence which you are willing to interact with.
    There’s also a huge issue of cultural portability here. From experience I can say that what Americans think is “fun” Brits may think is patronising. What the Brits think is witty the French definitely think is pointless and trivial. A personal attempt to introduce April Fool jollity to a Japanese firm was certainly a low point of my early career…..

    • John Stepper says:

      Yes, attempts to make things fun can fall flat and risk trivializing the work. Attempts to make the performance review process or the required course fun (points! badges!) would, in isolation, likely seem insincere and manipulative.

      That’s why I like the Speed Camera Lottery. It was “fun” in the broad sense of the word – a creative approach that didn’t mask the real task – slow down or get a ticket – but made an honest effort to appeal to the intrinsic behavior of those doing what was being asked.

      I prefer an effort like that, especially in the context of a comprehensive approach tapping into all 6 sources of influence, to the crude carrot and stick approaches at most firms.

      There is indeed an art to getting this right, but the sincere effort is worth it in terms of both fulfillment and effectiveness.

  8. robert says:

    hi john, again a great post. talking about motivation and collaboration your post reminds me of this:

  9. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    A great post John – and very entertaining! I also found the examples you gave fascinating in the context of the “fun theory”. All the examples were indeed “fun” but in the piano stairs there appeared to be no reason given for wanting to motivate people to use the stairs – other than “fun”. One could equally have taken the escalator out in order to persuade people to use the stairs for health reasons (or whatever). So “fun” was the only apparent motivator and outcome.
    Why not?

    In the speed reducing game – the prime motivator was money (as confirmed by the interviewees) although it had a very important outcome – reducing traffic speeds and saving lives. The desire to gain financially was far greater than the fun element or being convinced about that what they were doing was for the greater good.

    The recycling bin idea was the only one that was great fun, had a clear purpose and a fantastic outcome (increase in recycling).

    The real question is, if you then remove all the fun elements in the examples would the behaviour patterns have remained? Would they have succeeded in actually changing behaviour long term without the aid of the “game”? The only example where I think it may have done was the recycling bin example because there was both purpose, visible outcome and no personal reward offered.

    When applied to the work place employees have to understand why they are being asked to do something, what purpose is it serving and for whose benefit? Of course we want “fun” and “wit” – but we also want to be reassured it is for the good of the whole, not just the individual and not just for the sake of “fun” in the short term…
    or the desired change won’t last..

    Thanks for such a thought provoking piece – loved it!

    • John Stepper says:

      Such a great question, Marie-Louise! (And so nice to hear from you.) “If you then remove all the fun elements in the examples would the behaviour patterns have remained?”

      The answer is…probably not. It takes time to change habits. And, particularly when games are used to motivate people, people’s attention wanes as the game is no longer novel or challenging. (Consider, for example, Zynga’s rise and fall.)

      That’s why I liked Sam’s reference to gamification. Making things “fun” isn’t an approach – it’s *part of* an approach. For sustainable change, you need to tap into all 6 sources of influence.

  10. Cornelia Levy-Bencheton says:

    Hi John,
    Just love your blog. This is another great one …a “fun” one! Love how you developed this from your Jan. 19 post. Am completely in awe of your ability to create such fantastic content and share your wonderful thinking. I so look forward to Saturday mornings and reading your blog.

    Wonder why the word “fun” is anathema to companies? It seems to me that it should be a more important part of the corporate vocabulary, just as your other respondents have mentioned. After all, people having fun = happy people = satisfied employees = satisfied customers = recommenders = better performance overall. Right?
    Have an awesome week.

  11. That’s so fun indeed! Love these methods! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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  13. yemi says:

    Great post John, very thougtht provoking.

    This reminded me of the story of Pike Place Fish market and their attitude to fun and play at work – another illustration of how powerful play can be. On a similar note the story of how art was used inspire civic pride in Tirana ( The similarity I feel is that it taps into an emotive side of us to obtain the best.

  14. Great post John and just wanted to say I have recommended some clients of mine to come read this as part of their pre-work for a management team off-site on motivation and team effectiveness. So now you are being used as “homework”! I think this sits alongside Daniel Pink’s ideas about motivation at work. Motivation is so much more than money:

    • John Stepper says:

      Happy to be homework. 🙂 Daniel Pink did a great service to employees by popularizing good research on intrinsic motivation. In addition to Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, we can add Community. Focus on those, and we can stop trying to motivate people but instead truly “create environments where people motivate themselves.” (Deci)

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  17. Irin says:

    Thank you for a great article.
    Can you please tell again the difference between this theory and Gamification.
    Didn’t quite get it.

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