(This is a rehash of a co-authored blogpost with my colleague Gayathri Sekar
Our story begins in ThoughtWorks Pune, somewhere in October. We’d recently decided to hire a journalist to mine stories from the ground. She’d try to translate ThoughtWorkers’ voices into words and if necessary write their stories for them. Fortunately or unfortunately, we got to a point where we asked ourselves whether this would be an authentic way of communicating in the office. As it turned out, we agreed it wouldn’t be. Our problems still remained – we had a fantastic oral, storytelling culture, but when it came to writing about our work or experiences, we didn’t think much of what we do.
It was then that we had an epiphany. How about we used the same money that we’d use to hire a journalist, to instead engage ThoughtWorkers in writing about their work lives? Not only would the communication be far more authentic, we also stood a good chance of shaping a culture where people could write freely without the fear of being judged or considering their experiences to be “not much to write home about”.
Belief: Every ThoughtWorker has something to write home about. You never know how useful your experiences could be to your colleagues or to other people.
With that belief in mind, we set out planning a blogging campaign. I’d had done a course on Gamification with Prof Kevin Werbach of UPenn. We decided that we’ll run a contest in the office – inspired by a similar comtest that our marketing team had organised. We wanted to adhere to a few key principles though. WWe wanted to keep the entry barrier low, the feedback loops tight and the sense of achievement high. After all, those are the characteristics of any good game. In our contest, it didn’t matter where you posted your article, as long as ThoughtWorkers could see it. Every contribution got you points and every audience reaction to your contribution got you points as well. Of course, the more the effort behind your post, and the greater the value to ThoughtWorks or ThoughtWorkers, the more points you got. So, posts with videos and posts that went on to ThoughtWorks Insights would get a bagful of points. Just like that, we set things up and waited for the deluge to begin.
Learning: Keep things simple. Lower entry barriers, build in feedback and give everyone a sense of achievement.
Our idea, while popular with our general manager Chirag Doshi and a few others in the office, did find some skepticism. We almost ran into some rough weather with the name “Pune Blogging Competition”. After all, our inspiration was a set of well managed, centrally run contests and ours was the cheap, local imitation. The fear was that we may undermine the notion of a blogging competition. We got some suggestions telling us to change the name to anything but “Blogging Competition”. The skeptics also felt that we won’t be able to generate much good content. At the end of the day, how much can such a volunteer army do? We have to confess, we were a bit stung by those views. We did believe in the potential of our idea though, so we set aside the criticism and stuck to our plans.
Learning: Don’t underestimate the value of a ground up, organic initiative. ThoughtWorkers in particular will surprise and amaze you.
Our contest began sluggishly to be honest. There were rumours of people gaming our gamification and the entries, though regular, weren’t quite the deluge we were expecting. This is when Chirag reaffirmed what we were thinking – our contest needed to be one where everyone wins. With help from a few colleagues, we designed our first goodie – a limited edition, ThoughtWorks blogging t-shirt. We floated the rumour of a goodie for every participant. The idea was an immediate hit – the deluge hit us! Even as we got ourselves to cope with the massive number of entries, folks from the marketing team reached out to use our design for her own team. Game on, we said!
Learning: Winning isn’t everything, so the rewards shouldn’t be for winners alone.
As we read through the entries for the contest, we realised that points and rewards apart, our game needed a layer of communication and feedback. We instituted a leaderboard that we’d update daily and a weekly roundup that’d summarise the posts from the week. The idea was to keep the sense of progress in the game and build that tight feedback loop we wanted, while also ensuring that no entry falls by the wayside because of a lack of attention. It’s interesting how far a little discussion on our internal social network reaches. We’d receive responses to our weekly roundup from people who were not even in Pune. The leaderboard on the other hand, kept getting people excited about their own performance in the contest. The number of points they got was not just an indication of how popular their post was with their audience, but also how well they’d promoted it. It was a contest yes, but with a great sense of camaraderie to go with it.
Learning: People like feedback and a sense of progress. Finding a way to showcase contributions goes a long way.
When you institutionalise a platform, there’ll be its haters, regardless of how good at is. And sometimes that meme of how bad a platform is, goes around. Our internal social network isn’t unusual and receives its own share of criticism. As an organisation some of us have almost built a false narrative that we can’t drive engaging initiatives using the platform. That criticism has seen a number of parallel platforms emerge (since we’re a company of techies after all), which incidentally have a very poor footfall for a company our size. Some platforms die a natural death while others live on as long as certain individuals have the drive to manage them. For our purpose, the corporate social network provided a great, low-entry-barrier platform for first time bloggers. The email integrations ensured that the bloggers had an opportunity to publicise their posts to a wide audience as well. Our leaderboards and roundups too, got the biggest possible audience. The platform didn’t suck as bad as people said it did.
Learning: Platforms don’t matter as much as we think they do. Focus on communicating well and the platform will do its job in the background.
Just to spice up the contest a bit we went ahead and added our own easter eggs to the contest. Apart from promising a hoodie as a goodie for the month of December, we announced that the 31st blogger of the month stands to win the limited edition t-shirt from the previous month. We can’t remember the last time there were so many blogposts on New Year’s eve. Some posts came through just a few minutes before the clock ticked over – when even we, the organisers were in a holiday mood! Similarly this month we have three surprise gifts in addition to the sling bag we’ve promised. In 23 days, January’s given us 34 entries to the blogging contest, making it our most productive month thus far. All in all, to this day, the Pune Blogging Competition has generated 106 entries which is more than a blog a day!
The cool side effect has been the participation of first time bloggers, who were keen to pen down their learnings and were not feel shy about sharing them with their peers and co-workers. In fact, the reach went beyond ThoughtWorks itseld. People posted on their personal blog and showed the confidence to share their experiences with the outside world. We now also have a physical blogging wall in the Pune office, where people’s posts go up with their photographs and a scannable QR code.
Learning: People like surprises and sometimes just the regular set of incentives may not be enough. A small push goes a long way.
What we’d like to leave people with, is a blogging culture that is innate and not driven purely by incentives. The big visible wall in the office will provide the information radiator for this change. Our aim was to kickstart a culture where firstly ThoughtWorkers won’t be fearful of writing, and once they’d write they won’t be fearful to share. We still have some way to go on that journey, but we hope that by the end of 2015 we can build a blogging culture that Pune’s proud of. In the interim we’re hoping to graduate from individual achievements to team based and then office based achievements. That of course will be with a new group of curators in charge. In addition, we’ve set up a Pune Writers’ Peer Group – a bunch of bloggers in Pune who’re happy to review the writing of new authors just in case they need feedback or a set of friendly eyes to look over their content.
Learning: It’s not enough to start an experiment. We want to try making change that lasts.
As curators of the Pune Blogging contest, we’ve enjoyed the experience thoroughly. We’ve read a lot, written a lot, developed strong friendships and been part of an initiative we can look back at with great fondness. It’s been a great ride and with just about a week to go, we hope we’ll end on a high as well. Thanks to everyone who played along!