How DirecTV overhauled its 800-person IT group with a game

DirecTV's internal F12 game as seen on an iPad. Credit: DirecTV

A couple years ago, DirecTV decided that its IT organization was too timid. The group was too reluctant to share its mistakes with one another, which led to repeated errors, and too afraid to start bold new projects.

Sven Gerjets, the senior vice president of IT at the company, knew that had to change. "The IT organization is pretty critical to moving the business forward. But like everywhere else, consumerization was making everybody believe everything should be easy and fast. We had to address that fear of failure," he told CITEworld. "In this culture of wanting to do everything perfect, we were not really willing to do betas or prototype things."

Gerjets set out to change that with the assistance of Russ Bacon, who became the director of IT metamorphosis. Initially, Bacon recorded a video that was meant to encourage staffers to share information about a particular type of IT failure.

But how would they get people to watch the video? That was when they almost stumbled onto the solution: Turn it into a game.

The team knew it would have to use an internal video platform anyway -- they couldn't share the videos on YouTube and risk them becoming public. So as they built the platform sharing video, they added game elements into it. IT staffers would receive points for each video they watched, and would be able to compete with one another for bragging rights.

They teased the game, which they dubbed F12 -- the "F" stands for words like "Fearless, Focused, Failure" -- with a couple of quirky introductory videos, including one starring members of the senior leadership team in hilarious "failure" scenarios (unfortunately, the videos are private and we can't share them). Then they announced F12 at an all-hands meeting early in 2013, handing out envelopes with a handbook explaining how the game worked and a ticket with a "bonus code" that got them into the game.

The tactic worked amazingly well. Three weeks later, with no additional prompting, more than half the staff was participating.

Next, to increase engagement, they rolled out a program called "Zero to Hero," where newcomers to the game could win tickets to a hockey match by becoming the top point-winner over the next three days.

While that got engagement to 75%, it also created a problem. The F12 team was using enterprise version of Thrive Metrics to measure user sentiment about the game, and while they saw engagement rising, they also saw a steep increase in negative sentiment  -- apparently, early participants were upset because they weren't eligible for the newest contest.

So they adjusted the game and added a new contest: This one would reward active participants for recruiting newbies. By making tweaks like this, they are now at 97% participation while maintaining strong positive sentiment. More important, the game has spurred a lot of desired behavior -- for instance, IT leaders now regularly give "lunch and learn" sessions where they talk through a particular IT project and explain any pitfalls or mistakes.

The most important point with using game mechanics, says Gerjets, is that you can't just launch a game and then let it run on its own. "You have to keep game iterating. You don't want people to get bored, otherwise the competition dies down."

Bacon agrees, saying that if DirecTV hadn't devoted staff to monitoring it, the game probably wouldn't have been so successful. "If you manage it well, and manage it to your audience, and take their feedback in and use it positively, you can make it something that will resonate."

External rewards are only part of the equation -- a truly successful game will spur people to compete just for bragging rights. "Guys consistently at the top get pissed if we make it too easy for other people to catch up," says Gerjets. "That behavior tells me a lot of the motivation is the competition."

Bacon also says it's important to have a social community where members can interact with one another. In DirecTV's case, it's a community hub called Core, which is a white-labeled version of Jive's enterprise social networking platform. The converse is also true: Rolling out the F12 game increased the IT department's engagement with Core. (Which may be one reason why Jive has a deal with Bunchball to integrate game mechanics into Jive. DirecTV is thinking of using Bunchball's Nitro engine to connect F12 more directly into Core.)

There's one more caution: While almost everybody responds to competitive game dynamics, some people bristle at the idea of being told to play games at work. "Don't call it a game," suggests Bacon. 

Next up, DirecTV is working with video learning platform provider Sparkologee to add a version of this gamification platform into Sparkologee's learning portal. This will make it much easier for the IT team to manage the F12 game -- today, they have to do a new release every time they want to add a feature -- and will help the company extend game mechanics to other groups, such as call centers and salespeople. "When we get the learning platform moved over to Sparkologee, many groups are chomping at bit to use it," says Gerjets.

It also means that by the end of the year, your company will be able to follow in DirecTV's footsteps.

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