Sex, Drugs and Burndown charts

If you have ever run a distance race—whether it's a 5k or an ultramarathon—you will know the feeling of seeing the finish line come into sight. No matter how tired you were feeling, you suddenly get that burst of adrenaline and energy, enough to carry you over the finish line.

Sex, Drugs and Burndown charts

There are a lot of things in life that send your reward system into overdrive, a lot of them NSFW.

But one is exactly safe for work—great work. Every day, your sales team want to be rewarded for the great work they are doing. But the sales process isn't set up for that. There is one intangible goal at the end of the month with nothing in between and no way for salespeople to see all their effort paying off.

We developed the burndown chart to fight against this exact problem. By visualizing success throughout the month and giving your team an obvious finish line they can see to cross, you can take advantage of the brain's innate reward pathways to focus your team's attention and drive their efforts towards success, with a few nice hits of dopamine along the way.

What reward really is

In 1953, two scientists at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, James Olds and Peter Milner, devised an experiment. They attached electrodes to a part of the rat brain called the septal area. These electrodes delivered a small electric pulse into this area whenever the rat pressed a lever in their cage.

When left alone in their cage, the rats initially explored and then tentatively pressed the lever. Then hit it again. And again. And again and again and again, forgetting to eat, sleep and do anything else apart from hit that lever.

What Olds, Milner, and their rats had discovered was the brain's reward center. They had tapped directly into the motivational desires of those rats. What they would usually get from eating, grooming, playing or any other positive activity, they could now get just at the press of a button. So all they did was hit that button.

What works for rats works for humans. If you could implant electrodes directly into the analogous area of your brain, your ventral tegmental area (VTA), then you'd happy press that button all day long, and waste away in the process.


The dopaminergic reward system

That is the power of reward. In the human brain, the VTA lies at the base of a sophisticated pathway, that stretches all the way from your mid-brain—the primitive, animal part of your brain—all the way up to the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for our decision making and human cognition. Along the way, it guides your motivations, your emotions, your memories, and, most importantly, your learning.

This pathway controls everything that you have ever learned to do. From taking your first steps, to learning to recite Shakespeare, to closing your first big deal—this pathway was instrumental in it all.

The power behind reward is a neurotransmitter called dopamine.


Dopamine: simple, but incredibly effective

Dopamine is your brain's reward drug. Every time you do something good, you get a little hit of dopamine. Dopamine release in your brain makes you feel “good.” It's the chemical that orchestrates all of your learning. When you were a child, every time you took a few steps and got a clap from your parents, you got a dose of dopamine. When you were in college, every time you got an A, you got a dose of dopamine. As an adult, when you closed that first deal, the feeling of elation was a big release of dopamine telling you, “you did good! Now go and do it again!”

This is how we learn. We try new stuff, and if it has a good response, our brain releases dopamine. As a child, this feedback is explicit. You get a literal reward of a treat, or a clap, or a smile that evokes the dopamine response. As an adult, this reward mechanism becomes more implicit. You know closing a big deal is a good thing (though the tangible reward of a bonus also helps release that sweet, sweet dopamine).

At it's most basic, all our behaviors are a proxy for that electrode. All we really want in life is to have dopamine flood our brains. In a way, some people do exactly that—drugs such as amphetamines and cocaine act directly on the reward centers, giving users a massive rush of a neurotransmitter called dopamine.

But we have evolved beyond rats and can delay our gratification. We can work towards a future goal and a future rush of dopamine at the expense of the here and now. But to do this best, we need goals, and we need to see when the dopamine is going to arrive.

The power of seeing the finish line

If you have ever run a distance race—whether it's a 5k or an ultramarathon—you will know the feeling of seeing the finish line come into sight. No matter how tired you were feeling, you suddenly get that burst of adrenaline and energy, enough to carry you over the finish line.

A race like this is an excellent example of the fight in our heads between an expected reward and the challenges we face before we get that reward:

  • Beginning: On the start line, you know it will feel great to finish the race. You will have a sense of accomplishment, and probably get some nice swag and a medal as well.
  • Middle: As you run, the pain becomes more intense the further you go. The task becomes harder and harder, and the concept of reward diminishes. You can't imagine making it to the finish line and contemplate quitting.
  • End: As the finish line comes round the corner, you realize you can get there. As you cross the line, the “reward” you feel is a function of how hard you pushed yourself to get there. If you didn't achieve what you thought you could, the reward effect is diminished.

In the beginning, you feel good about the expected reward. At the end, you feel good because of the earned reward. In the middle, however, you are in a mental battle.

This is the same mental battle that any salesperson is in throughout their month. At the start of the month, they are raring to go. They have a ton of ideas about what is going to work with their deals for the month. They expect to make quota and get a bonus.

But then the race starts. Deals that seemed simple hit stumbles. The challenges add up and the negative mentality takes over. They no longer know whether they'll finish the race and the expected reward no longer seems worth the extra hassle. At the end, they miss the finish line, and their dopamine release doesn't occur. Then they have to start the next race.

There is an obvious way around this: show your salespeople the finish line. By keeping the goal of the visually in front of them throughout the month, you allow that reward system to work constantly to overcome the challenges. You have to be able to see the rewarded goal.

This is the idea behind our burndown chart:


Here, you have a start line—$174k—and a finish line—$0. Every day, a rep can visualize where they are in the race and see the finish line. This keeps the expectation of reward high. The monthly goal isn't just an abstract number; it is a line they can see.

Humans primarily work through visual search, so the reward system also has strong links through to our visual system. Increasing reward increases attention and gamma-band power, the frequency of brain activity closely associated with attentive focus in the visual cortex. When there is a big reward at stake, your eyes are constantly on the lookout for anything that will help them get that reward. So the more visual information you can give the brain about an upcoming reward, the more attention it shows.

There are three other ways that a burndown chart taps into the innate reward system:

  1. Pacing. By seeing their Actual up against their Ideal and Forecast burndown, a salesperson can more easily gauge where they are in the race and which challenges lay ahead. They know not only where the finish line is, but where they are in relation to it and what they need to do in the next day or next sprint to get to that finish line.
  2. Ticking off miles. It is a burndown chart rather than a burnup for a reason. The reward is crossing the finish line at zero, not hitting an arbitrary number. Your brain can see the numbers ticking off every day, making the final reward easier to get.
  3. Instant gratification. A big dopamine hit at the end of the month is great, but the smaller doses help significantly towards getting there. Seeing vertical plummets in the burndown chart as deals close allows for instant reward. This instant reward pushes the salesperson on towards the bigger final reward at the end of the month.

If a salesperson can keep their Actual, Ideal, and Forecast close together, they are effectively pressing their lever each day. Every time they close a deal, a hit of dopamine will go to their brain as they see the line edge down and closer to zero.

It is at this point that the final element of the reward system comes into play. Reward increases with effort. The more you try, the better you feel when you succeed. This is why it feels better to cross the line after bursting your lungs than ambling over easily.

Every day a salesperson sees their efforts paying off on the burndown chart, they get a little reward hit. But that effort is also increasing the effect their final dose of dopamine will have when they cross the finish line.

Make reward easy to see but difficult to get

If you fight against the brain, it will always win. With the burndown chart, we want to take advantage of the natural ways the brain sees the world and works in the world. We learn through reward, so baking it into the way your salespeople interact with their deals every day, allows them to learn what works and feel good about their efforts.

But remember reward increases with effort. The harder you have to work for something, the better you feel when you achieve your goal. You want to make that goal something that they can see every day but requires effort to reach. The burndown chart helps with the former, but only your team can put in the effort to make that reward worthwhile.

To give your team their dopamine fix with a burndown chart, head over to and signup for your (free forever) account.