Improv skills lead to success

Improv and Gamification: Potential Conflicts

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I’m taking the free Coursera course on Gamification, taught by Kevin Werbach from the Wharton School of Management. The book For the Win, which Werbach coauthored with Dan Hunter, mentions four basic elements of gamification:

  • Motivation
  • Meaningful choices
  • Structure
  • Potential conflicts

Their final item, potential conflicts, addresses how game elements can come into conflict with organizational goals and intrinsic (internal) motivation. The traditional management case study of conflicting elements is suboptimization, where an employee focuses on a specific task to the detriment of the overall project or even the entire enterprise.

As an example, suppose you’ll receive a substantial bonus for releasing a product to market by a specific date. It’s natural for you to evaluate your incentives and get that product out the door regardless of what corners you need to cut. If the product’s not as a good as it could have been, your employer must take a substantial portion of the blame. After all, they structured your incentives in a way that rewarded you for focusing on the subgoal instead of releasing a quality product.

In improv, you can suboptimize by going for the joke instead of playing a good scene and letting the laughs come naturally. I was especially guilty of this practice early in my career, but I’ve gotten away from it. The idea is that you want to keep the scene moving forward smoothly instead of stopping it with a joke. A joke’s punchline is an artificial endpoint that stops progress, pulls focus from the scene, and forces everyone to reset. Are jokes always bad in improv? No, but they make everyone’s job harder, especially when more than one person is going for the joke in a scene. Then it’s a travesty.

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