Want your employees or consumers to finish something? Give them a decent head start.
It sounds too simple to be true, but it is. People are more likely to complete a task if they are given a jump start at the beginning. This behavioral phenomenon is called “endowed progress.”
We all have natural urges to finish tasks — to reach the top of a mountain climb, to complete a crossword puzzle, to finish painting the bathroom – and those urges become even stronger when the end is in sight. So it makes sense that moving the finish line closer makes people more likely to reach it.
The classic experiment demonstrating endowed progress involved a pretty typical loyalty card program with a simple, but incredibly effective, twist. Marketing professors Joseph Nunes and Xavier Dreze set up a car wash that offered a free service after eight paid trips. One set of drivers got the expected card with eight blank spots for stamps; another set got cards with 10 spots, but they came preloaded with two stamps. What happened? While the actual eight-paid wash requirement was constant, the completion rate for head-start drivers nearly doubled. Among consumers with standard cards, only 19% cashed in on free washes; those with head-start cards redeemed at a 34% clip.
Progress, it turns out, begets more progress.
Endowed progress has implications far beyond loyalty programs. The last time you signed up for an online service like LinkedIn, you probably noticed a progress bar or “profile strength” meter showing your profile wasn’t complete — but it was almost finished. That’s a deliberate use of the effect, which is now well recognized as a critical tool in interactive design, helping nudge consumers through otherwise tedious sign-ups. Educators have seized on the concept too — sometimes sometimes offering prizes or stars early on in learning, to spur effort, or asking easy questions first during homework to get students “on a roll” so they’ll finish assignments.
Endowed progress works in part because of this natural urge people have to complete tasks, or at least to hate incomplete tasks. This is sometimes called “task tension,” and you see evidence of it all the time. It’s why cliffhangers work in books or TV shows. It’s why unresolved chords leave us with an itch that has to be scratched by music with a good “ending.” It’s also why you love crossing things off your to-do list.
More important to our goals on PeopleScience, something called the “goal gradient effect” seems to confirm that the closer people are to finishing something, the harder they work to complete it — just as runners “kick” at the end of a race when they see the finish line, or your teams seem to find that natural push right at the end of a project. Few days are more satisfying at work than when someone declares the “golden spike” has been hammered into place.
There are a myriad of ways to use endowed progress at work. Straightforward employee rewards programs are obvious — “Close 25 sales this month, earn a bonus, but here’s credit for five sales right off the bat.” But there are more elaborate ways to introduce such “games” at work, says Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter, authors of a book on “gamification” called For The Win. They recommend thinking like video game designers, who are expert at understanding the tricks that keep players motivated to continue on quests. Activity cycles with clear beginnings, endings and payoffs are critical, for example. To take advantage of endowed progress at work, employee tasks need to be broken down into achievable nuggets — with progress boosted at the beginning in a tangible way, and rewarded along the way, to make that finish line seem ever closer.
Toying with such games comes with risks, of course. While progress feels good, it’s important to note that the opposite is true — things can look pretty bleak at mile marker 12 of a marathon. If consumers or workers feel hopeless to finish a task, and there’s no obvious progress, they are more likely to abandon the task. That’s why online services won’t show you a “5 percent complete” progress bar.
You also don’t want consumers or workers seeing through your games. Let’s call this the “Office Space” flair problem. Giving away meaningless pins will just frustrate the people you are trying to nudge. And that leads to deeper risk, which Werbach and Hunter warn about. Employees and consumers can really resent feeling manipulated. One firm put up a public leaderboard tracking employee performance, theoretically to reward top workers, but instead, leaders faced blowback when employees saw it as a way to shame or threaten laggards.
A simple solution might be a matter of framing: Brand new projects and blank slates can sound really daunting. Incomplete projects, or picking up where someone else left off, can seem like less of a mountain to climb. Sometimes, all it takes is a good head start.
Bob Sullivan is a veteran journalist and the author of four books including New York Times bestsellers, Gotcha Capitalism and Stop Getting Ripped Off. He worked for MSNBC/NBC News for nearly 20 years, creating the popular consumer/tech blog The Red Tape Chronicles. Now an independent journalist, Sullivan is still a contributor on CNBC and NBCNews and continues to appear on NBC’s TODAY show and Nightly News programs as a consumer and technology expert. His columns appear on BobSullivan.net.