As a very smart young woman once told me, life is like a game of Super Mario. We have a set of restrictions (rules) under which we operate, a collection of goals, and a surprising array of challenges that changes beneath our feet. We advance levels as we go, sometimes opening a door to a wonderful bonus level. This is quite an appropriate analogy! Under this perspective, life is really an amazing experience in itself… much like a nice cloudy day spent playing as Mario moving through enchanting worlds. Or perhaps an entire day spent with Crayon Physics trying to touch that circle to the damn flag in fewer moves.

Try thinking about your startup company in the same terms. In one of my companies, where I am an active daily manager, we try our best to turn the work into a game. If you’re familiar with the growing trend towards gamification, or have read Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal, then you can probably see where this article is headed. If not, you may be thinking that I am “playing around” with capital and business in a foolhardy way. The truth is that turning important things (such as reaching business objectives) into a game produces better results. You’ll just have to trust me on that for now.

The talent of the current generation does not want to let their brains go underutilized. That helps explain the constant browsing of diverse topics on the World Wide Web during all waking hours. They also do not want to be “stuck” in a workplace that feels stagnant or lacks the opportunity for new healthy challenges.

Your startup should have talent within it. That part is obvious. But to make the most from that talent, and to give that talent the most satisfying experience, the company environment should be run differently than a standard “process and efficiency” model. Company goals should be translated into personal goals for each member of the team. You may want to assign point values to the goals and create a rewards system associated with the points. Turn the company into a game with levels, challenges, and a feedback system that allows employees and managers to judge for themselves whether or not they are playing well each day.

One example is the scheduling of work on different projects. Instead of simply prioritizing projects according to deadlines or management directives, we move the deadlines around when possible to create an “increasing challenge” experience for the team members. Boring and tedious projects are scheduled in such a way that the pains of working on them are interspersed with the enjoyable challenges that the team members desire. This way, the cool projects are earned as a reward for reaching the next goal within the crappy projects. This may seem like a manipulation of employees in order to increase outcomes… and it is. So what. It’s also the system I use to manage my own time, because frankly I will never be able to motivate myself to prepare a quarterly financial statement for investor review without some much more enjoyable task scheduled after it as a reward.

If you are reading this with excitement, then you should give it a try in your startup. If you disagree, perhaps this comparison will make more sense to you…

You have two departments in your company. One is customer service. The other is software development. Both departments have a 26-year-old employee within them. In customer service, the employee is required to be at his desk for the entire day, and is only allowed to leave for lunch and a couple of breaks. His goal is the same every day – to answer the phone and respond to email. This employee was genuinely happy to join the company, but now he is increasingly turning to computer puzzle games and surfing the Web to make it through each day. He’s at his desk 100% of the time, but his brain is only present about 60% of the amount it used to be.

In your other department, software development, the 26-year-old employee is much happier. He does not have to be at his desk with any regularity, yet you find that he is always right where he should be, working on his projects. This employee was equally happy to join the company, and started at the same time as the other employee working in customer service. Why is this person happier and more engaged in his work?

The nature of the software development job includes game elements. The challenges of computer programming naturally produce a wide variety of goals that differ from day to day. As the software becomes more advanced, the employee rises to the next level when he is ready… by seeing ways to make his own engineering efforts even more functional, efficient, or advanced.

Would you like your customer service employee to put 100% of his brain back into his job? Then turn that run-of-the-mill department into a game. Your employee at that desk is smart, so he knows that there are ways that technology can allow him to get out of his cubicle and still be available to answer phone and email requests immediately (it’s called a cell phone). Free him up to find his own solutions to reach his goals, and gear the department toward an “increasing challenge” mechanism. Then you’ll be generating more results for the same amount of salary expense, and you may even discover that your company is capable of achieving greater things because you’re allowing your talented employees to manifest their talents.

Treat your startup like a game, and allow the entire team to do the same. Business is a part of life, after all, and that is just one big game, too.

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