"Knowledge work is fundamentally different: workers are expected not so much to perform standard roles but to generate creative, innovative results that surprise and delight customers and colleagues."
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If you’ve read Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind or Seth Godin’s Linchpin, you’re likely already aware that there’s a new skill set required for professional success in the 21st century. The days of following a step by step job description are dead, and the future belongs to those who can innovate; those who can “surprise and delight their customers and colleagues”. Which, of course, is easier said than done. Imagine my delight then when I came across a slim book called Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers.
Fully living up to its (sub)title, Gamestorming is an easy-to-comprehend-and-apply guidebook to a new method of brainstorming; a world in which we use the basic foundations of games (yes, games) to think through challenging or sophisticated problems. The book provides not only 80 some-odd pre-built games (games that you can use immediately to take your brainstorming/meetings sessions to a whole new level), but also provides a comprehensive explanation of how games are designed and best utilized, allowing the reader to start to visualize their own potential games to use with colleagues and/or clients.
For those of us who were hardwired through our education to identify a process for solving a problem, Gamestorming offers a refreshing look at the real world we live in, and how we can navigate the challenges of our daily professional lives in a fun and productive manner.
The Big Idea
"A fuzzy goal is one that 'motivates the general direction of the work, without blinding the team to opportunities along the journey.'"
Like Chris Columbus, Magellan and other explorers of old, we need to be ok with having only a vague sense of where we’re going. (India, anyone?) Gamestorming co-authors, Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo suggest that, as leaders, it’s ok to be unsure of the exact specifics of how we’re going to get to where we want to go… or even if where we think we want to go is, in fact, our best bet. The name of the game is keeping an open mind, and maintaining a willingness to explore a multitude of potential avenues before committing to one course of action. You don’t need to “know it all” to be a strong leader in the 21st century. Instead, your role should really be to identify the objective, and then be able to motivate your team to work towards a solution. As an example…
In a conversation with Roger Martin (Dean of Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto), Roger outlined to me an exercise he had his MBA students work through as a part of their course. The situation was Toronto traffic, and the challenge was to identify better systems for managing the flow of people in an average day. Now, you don’t need to know Toronto to understand the magnitude of this challenge. Imagine any city of 6 million people and you’ll start to get the picture. Roger’s objective was not to define the ideal solution and have his team build it. Instead, his role was (a) to define the problem, fuzzy though it was (improve Toronto traffic), and (b) to engage his “team” in creating a solution. In Gamestorming, we explore the engagement aspect of the leadership role. How, exactly, do you get people actively involved in creating a solution to a problem this large, and this fuzzy?
In the following two Insights, we look at two tools that Gray, Brown and Macanufo suggest for getting people engaged.
"An artifact can be anything from a piece of paper to a sticky note or index card. Artifacts make it easier to keep track of information by making it a part of the environment."
By their very nature, complex problems are, well, complex. Perhaps you could hold all the information about the problem in your head, but why would you, if you have the opportunity to use props and reminders instead? In Gamestorming, these “props and reminders” are called “artifacts”, and can take on a variety of appearances. As suggested in the quote above, artifacts (certainly in the business world) often come in the form of sticky-notes, index cards or pieces of paper. They don’t have to be paper, however. Have you ever used the salt and pepper shaker to tell a story over the breakfast table? Those salt and pepper shakers just became artifacts in your story.
Too often, we rely strictly on words to attempt to describe a complex situation or problem. If you’re not in the habit of doing so already, use artifacts where possible. The great thing about sticky notes, specifically, is that they can be laid out spatially (on a wall or white board, for example) to explain complex relationships that we might not otherwise be able to articulate. They can also be rearranged as we talk through ideas and start to test out different relationships.
In a brainstorming session, sticky notes and index cards also allow people to jot down their own ideas, rather than wait for their turn to have the facilitator write their idea on the board (as is the case in traditional group brainstorming). Get people actively engaged by giving them the power to contribute on their own time, in their own words. Then get all the ideas (one per sticky note) on the board and start to look at the relationships. This simple twist on your traditional brainstorming process could have a huge impact.
Defy labels (at least initially)
"Ask people to sort the sticky note into three columns... Naming the columns too early will force them back into familiar, comfortable patterns. Remember that in creative work we are trying to help people generate and see new patterns."
This was another great takeaway for me – label things later. So often when I’m leading a brainstorming session, I break the whiteboard into columns (good) and label the columns to help create clarity (bad). Labelling itself is not inherently bad, but labelling things too early can be limiting on the creativity being generated. Suddenly ideas that don’t fit into the three arbitrary categories seem like “bad” ideas.
Instead, get all your ideas (recorded on sticky notes) on the board, sorted by relationship (how do the ideas themselves relate, without an imposing structure?) rather than the three, pre-defined headings. Then, by all means label your columns, so long as it’s after all the ideas are sorted by relationship.
In the process of Gamestorming, the familiar and the comfortable are counter-productive. Acknowledge their siren’s call, and do your best to steer the group back into uncharted territory.
Considering the actual “instruction” part of Gamestorming is only 52 pages, I took a crazy amount of notes as I read through it. Perhaps this speaks to the uniqueness of this book. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how many ideas it sparked for my own life and business. Regardless, I can comfortably say that it’s been a while since I so enjoyed reading a business book. I don’t think I’m alone. At our core, we all love games – the chance to explore a new world and create, through a structured frame. Gamestorming gives us the tools (and the confidence) to do so in our professional lives. But be warned; this is not a “one time thing”. As the authors themselves say, “Those hoping for a ‘flavor of the month’ to rescue their failing business, or a quick fix, can look elsewhere. But those who approach gamestorming as a practice, worthy of careful study and ongoing skill-building work, will find here a path to rich rewards and personal fulfillment at work.”
I’m looking forward to it.