Developing the Conditions for Better Compulsion Loops in New Product Development

How do you get individuals involved in new product development to do more of the effective activity? There are many approaches. In this episode, I will explore several concepts from game development. I will describe how to develop the conditions for a core compulsion loop to drive positive Development Experiences (DX) in new product development.

Game Thinking and Game Mechanics

Often, playing a game is associated with the concept of fun. During game development, individuals are involved in tasks such as designing, coding, and composing, their deliverables. In addition, they strive to make playing the game fun.

According to John Earner of Space Ape Games, a great game has the following characteristics:

  • You are not forced to play the game. If you are forced to play, you are likely to resist.
  • In itself, playing the game may seem unproductive but it allows learning. A game probably has a purpose.
  • The outcome is uncertain.
  • You understand the rules
  • The game may be set in artful, virtual worlds. These worlds can capture an experience in a fictitious environment.
  • Games have easily understandable goals such as ‘save the Princess.’ Throughout a game, you may avoid obstacles, win tokens, and advance to the next level so that you are closer to saving the Princess.

It is not a surprise that some of these game characteristics have been applied in other contexts. The term for this is gamification. According to Wikipedia:

“Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in a non-game context in order to engage users and solve problems”

According to Stephanie Morgan, (@notSMorgangame mechanics are constructs of rules intended to produce a game. Common game mechanics include:

  • Scores and points accumulated through experimentation, interaction, and learning
  • Achievements such as badges and rewards
  • Avatars that provide a sense of identity”

Unfortunately, the concepts of gamification are frequently misinterpreted. One needs more than a tally of scores or a presentation of leader boards to maximize fun or interest or engagement. It requires more than dazzling graphics and carefully composed music.

Note: Some individuals may try to manipulate the system for a desired outcome. This is also known as “gaming the system” ( . This is different than gamification.

Core Compulsion Loops in Game Development

To understand what makes a game fun, some have explored a concept called the core compulsion loop. Some say that the proper development of a core compulsion loop is the essential ingredient for a successful game.

The word compulsion has definitions that range from:

  1. The state of being forced
  2. A difficult to resist urge to behave in a certain way

In the game context, the ‘difficult to resist urge’ conveys the desired intention for a core compulsion loop. A properly developed compulsion loop feeds the mechanics of the game.

A simple, primary compulsion loop is kill monsters, obtain rewards, buy items to kill more monsters.

A simple compulsion loop from a game

A simple compulsion loop from a game

Secondary compulsion loops can be layered and fed into one primary compulsion loop. A secondary compulsion loop may have an element that may be characterized as instant gratification. The primary compulsion loop has a long-term impact. The primary compulsion loop may be characterized in terms of accomplishment.

A properly functioning primary compulsion loop is a virtuous circle that keeps players engaged.

Note: In this post, I am presenting compulsion loops from a positive perspective. Compulsion loops can designed to amplify destructive, additive behavior. I am not addressing those aspects in this post.

Common Gamification Approaches in New Product Development

Common approaches to new product development activities include:

  • Document explicit processes
  • Compliance enforcement. Establish milestones and demand accountability to deadlines.
  • Financial incentives related to salaries and bonuses of individual contributors

There are more subtle forms of gamification. One example is part of the Scrum framework. It embraces the concept of assigning story points for tasks and tracking progress with a burn down chart. This is a reasonable method to track project progress but it does not make for a great game.

Planning Poker cards

Planning Poker Cards used in Scrum to represent story points. The numbers approximate a Fibonacci Sequence.

These methods are not likely to form high performance compulsion loops.

Generalized Version of a Compulsion Loop for New Product Development Environments

A properly designed compulsion loop can become a vital driver to sustain a vibrant new product development environment. A general version of a compulsion loop can be illustrated using goals that are consistent with the concepts of “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” as advanced by Dan Pink (@DanPink) in his book  Drive.

Drive by Daniel Pink

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink emphasizes the roles of autonomy, mastery, and purpose

Autonomy is defined as the ability of a person to make their own decisions. It is self-direction. In a new product development environment, one strives to make better decisions. In this context, autonomy includes individual and group decisions. It includes decisions that the have an impact in the present and those that impact the future.

Mastery includes becoming more proficient with tools and techniques related to individual specialties (such as coding, testing, and marketing). It includes explicit and implicit coordination, collaboration, and harmony within a group.

Purpose includes the ‘why’ questions. In a new product development context, purpose relates to individuals and the product.

  • Personal purpose includes questions such as “Why am I doing this?” and “Why should I care about this?” It includes short-term and long-term perspectives. Purpose includes questions such as “How do my efforts impact others?”
  • Product purpose may include a product vision statement or value proposition. It may not completely express the purpose of the product.

In part, purpose may be transmitted from management. In part, individual contributors inform management. Purpose develops from interactions. Purpose emerges.

Developing the Conditions for Better Compulsion Loops in your New Product Development Environment

The concepts of autonomy, mastery, and purpose may provide a general starting point to develop the conditions required for a compulsion loop.

A compulsion loop for an individual in a new product development environment

A compulsion loop for an individual in a new product development environment

A high performance compulsion loop can not be developed instantaneously. It requires more than the aspiration of the leadership or a single individual in the development network. It requires more than creating a motivational graphic to represent a compulsion loop and posting it throughout the workplace.

A high performance a compulsion loop requires the appropriate supporting environment. It requires investments by individuals to understand the theory. It requires sufficient time to develop proficiency through practice.

To explore how this development may occur, consider a few items related to the concept of autonomy.

  • Someone does not become fully autonomous just because a new initiative begins.
  • The expression of autonomy is role dependent. Leaders may encourage autonomous behavior in their direct reports but the range of appropriate behaviors will be role dependent. For example, a senior project leader will behave in ways that are different than that of a neophyte. Likewise, a coder will make different decisions than a tester.
  • An individual contributor may embrace their autonomy but not have sufficient knowledge to make informed decisions throughout development. Ongoing training is required to maximize the potential for desirable results.
  • An individual’s expression of autonomy evolves and adapts.

In terms of autonomy, the development environment should promote decisions that result in characteristics such as enthusiastic, effective, and efficient decisions for engagement.

In terms of mastery, the development environment should promote activities that result in comprehensive knowledge and accomplishment. An individual should advance their skills in their specialty (such as coding in a particular language) and expand their skills (such as coding in a new language).

An individual should increase their understanding of how they create value through their interactions with others in the development network. An example of purpose is captured by in the following excerpt:

“For a cross-discipline team that is measured by value added to a working game, the role of an artist shifts to that of a ‘game developer’ who specializes in art. An artist doesn’t simply create an asset for someone else to put in the game and make fun.  The artist participates in the creation of an experience, where art has an equal value. By having a voice in the discussion about what is being created, the artist elevates the value of what they create and minimizes the cost of creating it.” –  from the book “Agile Game Development with Scrum” by Clinton Keith (@ClintonKeith) page 227. Published in 2010.

Agile Game Development by Clinton Keith

Agile Game Development by Clinton Keith

Better Compulsion Loops in New Product Development Environments

To get individuals to do more of the effective activity, develop conditions to ensure that the activity produces fun. I am using the word ‘fun’ to cover a broad category that can also include items such as fulfilling, satisfying, and intellectually challenging.

For knowledge workers, I contend that a compulsion loop based on fun will produce better outcomes than one that is based on compliance.

I acknowledge that deadlines and performance reviews that relate to salaries may motivate individuals during certain times in a project but that is an inferior compulsion loop.

It is better to evolve notions of compliance to reflect the project constraints. In a project, constraints evolve as information emerges.

Prototyping a Better Compulsion Loop in your New Product Development Environment

When a new product is being developed, prototype the compulsion loop before you invoke a lot of technology. Individual contributors want fun and technology.
In a new product development context, prototype the conditions that you believe will produce a great Development Experience (DX). When you have done that, you will have the insights required to develop a high performance primary compulsion loop.

Developing the Conditions for Better Compulsion Loops

Reductionism and Recursion in New Product Development

Which approach to new product development will produce better results? Reductionism or Recursion?


According to Wikipedia:

“Reductionism is a philosophical position which holds that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents.”

In new product development, reductionism is rationalized as breaking development tasks into manageable pieces. Typical artifacts are seen in organizational charts or the roles assigned to individuals. For example:

  • Coders or Testers
  • Designers or Developers
  • Marketers or Sales
  • Project Managers or Product Managers
  • Front End of Innovation or Development

One of the potential advantages of reductionism is that it may provide focus to specialty efforts. Another potential advantage is that is may facilitate the interchangeability of resources (for example, one tester can be replaced by another tester with the equivalent qualifications).

Potential disadvantages of reductionism approaches include:

  • Degrades communication across functional groups
  • Acceptance of a hand-off mentality. This occurs when one functional area ‘finishes their job’ and presents their deliverables to the next group.
  • Increases the amount of explicit documentation
  • Sub-optimization. Too much effort may be devoted to certain tasks while others items do not receive sufficient attention.
  • Too much emphasis attributed to reaching milestones. Not enough emphasis on value creation.


Recursion involves solving problems of the same form. In new product development, typical primary problems include:

  • Solving a customer’s problem. This is also described as providing a solution for the job the customer is trying to accomplish.
  • Increasing the organization’s revenue and/or profits
  • Positioning the organization for success in the future
  • Increasing the motivation of the development network. Dan Pink described this using the qualities of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I describe this as improving the Development Experience [DX]

Recursion in the Development Network

For a recursion approach to flourish, an individual relates their short-term efforts (such as hourly, daily, or weekly efforts) to solve one or more of the primary problems listed in the previous section. For example:

  • Are their current efforts improving the ability of a customer to solve their problem? Has the learning increased so that individual contributors can determine if they are closer to solving the customer’s problem today than they were yesterday?
  • Are these efforts valuable to the customer? Are these efforts too bureaucratic?
  • Will the development efforts for the next project produce better results than the current project? Are the development capabilities being enhanced for future projects?
  • Will the contributors to the development network feel a sense of accomplishment? Will the predominant feelings relate to burn-out and frustration?

An environment that enables recursion to flourish ensures that individuals embrace opportunities to contribute to value creation during the current project and future projects.

Alistair Cockburn described this type of approach as a series of cooperative games. He stated:

“Software development is a series of resource-limited, goal-directed cooperative games of invention and communication. The primary goal of each game is the production and deployment of a software system; the residue of the game is a set of markers to assist the players of the next game. People use markers and props to remind, inspire and inform each other in getting to the next move in the game. The next game is an alteration of the system or the creation of a neighboring system. Each game therefore has as a secondary goal to create an advantageous position for the next game. Since each game is resource-limited, the primary and secondary goals compete for resources.”

Clinton Keith described it this way:

“For a cross-discipline team that is measured by value added to a working game, the role of an artist shifts to that of a ‘game developer’ who specializes in art. An artist doesn’t simply create an asset for someone else to put in the game and make fun.  The artist participates in the creation of an experience, where art has an equal value. By having a voice in the discussion about what is being created, the artist elevates the value of what they create and minimizes the cost of creating it.”

From the book “Agile Game Development with Scrum” by Clinton Keith (@ClintonKeith) page 227. Published in 2010.

Contrasting Recursion and Iteration

Iteration is repeating. Often, it involves executing the same process with new items from a long list of potential tasks.

In Scrum, Sprint is the term for an iteration. In Scrum, the duration of a typical Sprint is in the range of one to four weeks. During a Sprint, development is devoted to completing selected items from a backlog of items.

Common metrics for a series of Sprints may highlight factors related to the speed of execution. This may include items such as burn-down rate.

One of the potential problems with an iteration mindset is that the number of product features that are completed is associated with a proxy for the value produced by the project.

Which is Better?

Which approach provides better value from a project? Is it a reductionist approach or a recursion approach?

A tyrannical approach does not produce better project value. Debating over a development question that includes the word ‘or’ is not likely to improve qualities such as autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Better value will be produced with the proper combination of reductionism and recursion. Some individuals excel as reductionists. However, the potential for project success can not be achieved when the reductionist viewpoint is the only viewpoint that is tolerated.

Maximizing the potential for project success requires that one or more of the primary problems is being solved. Solving these primary problems is best accomplished with the inclusion of a recursion approach. This requires more than assigning someone to a role such as Product Owner.

I have found that that potential to maximize success in new product development improves when there is a critical mass of individual contributors that embrace a recursive approach to development. This diversity in the development network improves the potential for harmonious plans, decisions, and actions throughout development. It improves the potential for the self-correcting analysis of feedback.

Vision and Version

The interplay of vision and version in new product development

The interplay of vision and version in new product development

The interplay of reductionism and recursion is similar to the interplay of vision and version in new product development. These approaches facilitate implicit coordination within a diverse group of individual contributors throughout development that will produce better outcomes than alternatives that enforce handoffs and explicit coordination during development.

With a synergistic approach, the customer’s problem is more likely to be solved. The Development Experience [DX] of the individual contributors is more likely to improve from one project to the next.



Reductionism and Recursion in New Product Development (10 Minutes, 15.5 MBytes)