Little Bits Of Ribbon

by Randy Murray on May 10, 2010

I use a Polar fitness watch to monitor my heart rate while exercising. It helps me keep my level of exertion high, but not too high. It keeps track of my workouts, which is great, but the interface to transfer it to my computer is hopelessly unworkable, so I just use the watch’s display to check my weekly status.

And the watch does one other thing: if I meet or exceed my weekly goals, it awards me with a little pixel-drawn trophy. If I don’t meet them, the display reverts to an uninteresting swirl. And I’ve found that receiving and keeping this little trophy keeps me dragging myself down to the gym, pumping iron and pounding away the miles.

“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”

Napoleon Bonaparte

One of the secrets to motivating performance in any endeavor is to make the prize virtually insignificant, but imbue it with value to the individual. That little digital trophy makes me smile every Monday morning when it’s awarded and makes me dig in when I fail to receive it. There’s nothing outside of me that determines if I receive it or not. I am completely in control of my own actions. I’m surprised at how hard I’ll work to keep it displayed on my watch.

But it’s odd. I don’t work out to receive the award. I do it to get fit and reduce pain. Until now no one else knew about it and I never wear the watch outside of my home.

You see the same thing happening with users of Foursquare. Go places, do things, “check in”, and you’ll receive a little badge. It is surprisingly addictive. Frankly, I don’t really care about where my friends around the country are doing their grocery shopping, but that I’m the Mayor of my local Kroger is a point of pride– although writing it down or talking about it is more than a bit embarrassing.

The secrets to effective motivation are quite simple:

  1. Make the reward small, simple, yet recognizable.
  2. The criteria must be absolutely objective. The goal was achieved or not.
  3. The goal should be possible, short term, and desirable.
  4. Make the criteria for receiving the reward external to the recipient.
  5. The reward should be issued immediately upon achieving the goal.
  6. No rewards are issued short of achieving the goal.

It doesn’t matter if you want to get fit, lose weight, or drive sales performance, you can find a way to motivate the behavior you desire. These little awards are far more effective than the blowout-sized ones.

For example, I’ve managed sales teams and found that although they claim otherwise, money alone doesn’t motivate a salesperson’s actions. If you set a big payoff, thousands of dollars or a trip to an exotic location you’re unlikely to get what you need TODAY. Today’s performance, actions this week, they require a different kind of motivation. The sales rep knows that they can put off calling on prospects today because they can make it up tomorrow or next week. And when it’s next week, there’s always tomorrow again. The big rewards and distant goals rarely work and you end up motivating and paying those who don’t need the incentives. Your awards should be small, short term, and automatic.

Good organization will only get you so far. If you want to develop regular, dependable performance you’ll need to find those little motivations that get you busy today.

What motivates you?

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