Applying the Fun Theory 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.”

It 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.

Then 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

The 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.