Monday, November 21, 2011

The chocolate bar

This October, I gave a Pecha Kucha at the conference Lean Kanban Central Europe in Munich. The title oft he talk was Pimp my Board, and I described 10 different ways teams might want do try out to improve their card wall.
You can watch the Pecha Kucha here:

One of this tricks is called „make it fun“. Here I told a little story about the startup jimdo When I visited them for the first time in 2010, I was fascinated by their creativity and by the many cool ideas which evolve from the teams. At their office the walls are covered with all kinds of visualisations and plenty of different card walls. When walking around, I saw a chocolate bar attached to one of their boards. When I asked about the purpose of this chocolate bar, they told me: „It´s like a little game: The first one who finishes 5 tasks, gets the bar.“

Although I received quite good feedback for my talk, there was some criticism on Twitter. The argument was that the chocolate bar is a kind of extrinsic motivation, and extrinsic motivation is problematic because it would kill intrinsic motivation. Daniel Pink talks a lot about this in his book and in this short, beautiful animated video To put in a nutshell, Daniel Pink says: Whenever you try to motivate people (in knowledge work) by offering them rewards, they will start working only for getting the rewards, not for achieving goals - and their performance will decrease instead of increasing.

I was familiar with all this and I generally agree. But I was completely puzzled that the jimdo example could fit into this pattern. I had a lot of discussion about this and thought it through several times. Now the whole thing is a lot clearer to me and I´d like to share my thoughts about why I still do not think that the chocolate bar in my example should be considered harmful.
1) If I get it right, the purpose of the chocolate bar was not to motivate people but to have more fun at work by playing a little game.
2) Even if you consider the chocolate bar an extrinsic motivation, it probably wouldn´t do any harm, because the incentive is too low. A child might kill for a candy – a well off knowledge worker will not. It would be a completely different story if we would exchange the chocolate bar with a 500 EUR note.
3) It was not a manager who attached the chocolate bar to the board and said: „Listen, I want you do work smarter. That´s why I offer you this chocolate bar for good performance.“ This sounds like a Dilbert comic strip, and I´m sure the team would have laughed at their boss if he had done so. Instead, the game was invented by the team itself. And that´s a big difference to me!
4) I´m convinced that you cannot judge the effects of things like the chocolae bar game or anything else without taking into consideration in what context you are acting. In this case the company culture is very important. I´ve never seen a company like jimdo that has such a great company culture. And I think this culture works like a shield and protects the people from many of the negative effects that might have occured in other contexts.


  1. My first reaction would have been something very close to the second argument: The value is simply too low. It gives the whole thing a playful game character rather than a highly competitive performance bonus character.

    If you turn it around, a chocolate bar will never turn an unmotivated employee motivated. It's just something that pushes the motivation that is already there. If I'm not motivated I won't suddenly become so because of a chocolate bar. I have enough money to buy one.

    So while I believe that the original quote "Whenever you try to motivate people (in knowledge work) by offering them rewards,..." has some truth in it, it somehow implies that there's an urgent need to actually offer extrinsic means to force motivation.

    A chocolate bar will never be enough to force motivation, it will maybe just add a tiny bit of competition (if at all). Mostly I can see it add a playful element to the team's work - in a way the simple fact that there is a chocolate bar might be a motivation as in making the workplace a nicer place to come to where you are allowed to be silly and indulge in stupid competitive games.

    Also, chocolate. ALWAYS a good thing.

  2. Hi Arne,

    from my perspective, it wasn't you who got the criticism, but a tweet that referenced your slide as an interesting way to *motivate*. And I still think that that criticism of a chocolate bar as a *general* means to motivate a team is well founded.

    Anyway, I agree with almost all of your points here. The only thing I'm not convinced of is that the low value of the chocolate bar would lead to a decreased effect of destroying intrinsic motivation. I think the real reason is that it's a symbolic reward, that downplays the monetary value and, as you say, focusses on the fun, playful aspect.

    If, for example, you replaced the chocolate bar by a ten cent coin, I'd expect the intrinsic motivation to be much more likely to be in jeopardy, because that would actually devalue the work done.

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