Triggering stories and action through competition

When asked for the secret of his success in the steel industry, American industrialist Charles Schwab (1862-1939) always talked about using praise, not criticism, giving liberal bonuses for work well done, and “appeal[ing] to the American spirit of conquest in my men, the spirit of doing things better than anyone has ever done them before.”

He liked to tell this story, retold in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, about how he handled an unproductive steel mill:

Schwab had a mill manager whose people weren’t producing their quota. “How is it that a manager as capable as you can’t make this mill turn out what it should?””I don’t know,” the manager replied. “I’ve coaxed the men, I’ve pushed them, I’ve sworn and cussed, I’ve threatened them with damnation and being fired. But nothing works. They just won’t produce.”

Schwab asked the manager for a piece of chalk, and asked: “How many heats did your shift make today?”


Schwab chalked a big figure six on the floor. When the night shift came in, they saw the “6″ and asked what it meant. “The big boss was in here today, he asked us how many heats we made, and we told him six. He chalked it down on the floor.”

The next morning Schwab walked through the mill again. The night shift had rubbed out “6″ and replaced it with a big “7.”

When the day shift reported for work the next morning, they saw a big “7″ chalked on the floor. So the night shift thought they were better than the day shift did they? Well, they would show the night shift a thing or two. The crew pitched in with enthusiasm, and when they quit that night, they left behind them an enormous, swaggering “10.”

Shortly, this mill, which had been lagging way behind in production, was turning out more work than any other mill in the plant.”

Schwab’s improvised just-in-time leader board was simple, quick, cheap and powerful. Leaderboards can stimulate and motivate people to succeed. Making outcomes more visible to more people guarantees more discussion about who’s successful and why. Leaderboards are therefore a terrific way to trigger stories.

Did you see Dave’s team is leading this week, did you hear about that big deal they did last week? See Tracey’s guys have gone up since last week after she had them on that training course? What do you think is going on with Gary’s team to bomb that badly?

Visible results, tied in with competition, trigger stories. This is a central tenant of the whole gamification movement

Carnegie concludes his anecdote by quoting Schwab: “The way to get things done is to stimulate competition. I do not mean in a sordid, money-getting way, but in the desire to excell.”

Obviously, no sane organisation wants a competition right out of David Mamet’s Glengarry, Glen Ross. But if it drives the right behaviours and triggers the right stories then it can be a great way to build motivation and increase performance.

About  Kevin Bishop

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