Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Changemakers

October 2, 20136 min

BookCoverFrom my personal experience and my work with clients, a key responsibility of a ScrumMaster (and Product Owner’s too) is to help people do their best thinking and unlock their creativity.  When I discuss the duties of a ScrumMaster in my Certified ScrumMaster courses, I often describe the role of a ScrumMaster as a person who amplifies the contributions of others.  In addition, he or she acts as a connector between people and groups that should be communicating, should be in contact with one another, but for whatever reason they do not interact frequently or as well as they could.  But what does that even mean – “amplify the contribution of others” and “connect people to do their best thinking”?  And how would a ScrumMaster (or Product Owner) make this happen?

This month I want to offer Gamestorming as a resource that enables you to achieve these goals.  Gamestorming is a collection of Serious Games you can play with your Teams, users, customers and stakeholders when you need some new thinking about an old problem and they add a dose of much needed fun to the same old-same old meeting in the same old-same old windowless conference room on the seventh floor.  These inventive “facilitation techniques” (a respectable alternative phrasing when your organization is averse to the words “game”, “play” and “fun” being uttered at work) are powerful thinking tools that bring forth new ideas and perspectives necessary to create new, exciting and innovative products and services, re-examine long-held assumptions and find solutions to eliminate those hard challenges that keep teams from high-performance.

The opening chapters of this book ask “What is a game?”, share where the authors’s feel Serious Games fit into a business context, a pre-game checklist of ten items needed to get started and offer some interesting concepts about game design.  Be sure to read the section which talks about the pattern of Opening-Exploring-Closing and the respective types of thinking needed, Divergent-Emerging-Convergent.  This model comes directly from Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Kaner, et al. and is actually a fundamental concept to understand when facilitating any conversation with three or more people.

Chapter Three talks about specific skills you will need to practice before facilitating a game.  The authors give ideas on how to ask questions to facilitate each type of thinking, how to collect and organize data (what they call nodes) and what basic drawing skills you need to master.  Yes – you have to draw to facilitate games.  And no – this is not an art contest, so relax.  Basically, if you can draw anything a competent seven-year-old can make with crayons and construction paper, you literally have all the drawing skills necessary to facilitate a game.

Beginning in Chapter Four, the authors introduce nine fundamental games, or game patterns, that repeat in one form or another in every game you will play in their book or other games from the Internet.  The ones I use the most in my work are Affinity Map, Card Sorting, Dot Voting, Forced Ranking and Post-Up.  Affinity Mapping and Dot Voting are so fundamental, that if you are not using these techniques now you absolutely have start using them and master them.  To make Dot Voting more fun, and add an unexpected elements for the participants, I suggest using stickers.  Adults normally do not have the opportunity to use stickers in their day-to-day work and their introduction seems to loosen people up.

The exercises in Chapter Five offer multiple of practices to support divergent thinking.  The great thing about these activities is that they are unfamiliar and people are curious to play along.  My favorites from this chapter are The Anti-Problem, Draw the Problem, Fishbowl, Forced Analogy, Graphic Jam, Low-Tech Social Network, Object Brainstorm, Poster Session, Pre-Mortem and Trading Cards.  For me, I find this collection of activities very helpful to connect people to one another, listen to each other and encourage them to think about the problem in a new way.  In my opinion, you have to crack the participants out of their traditional ways of thinking and see the problem before they can explore an idea.

Chapter Six has forty-one games for supporting exploration.  My favorites from this chapter are 4Cs, The 5 Whys, Campfire, Challenge Cards, Design the Box, Force Field Analysis, Open Space and Speed Boat.  As I reflect on these games, a lot of my favorite activities involve people telling stories and sharing their experiences.  This is not too surprising to me since during exploration we are looking to build a common frame of reference from a set of divergent viewpoints and perspectives.  Exploration can be quite challenging and stressful for the participants AND the facilitator.  It is important to remember the facilitator’s main role in these conversations is to support the participants in building the shared understanding so they can begin to decide what to do.

Chapter Seven has eleven games for supporting convergent thinking and helping the participants decide what to do.  The games I use most often are 20\20 Vision, Pluses and Deltas, Prune the Future and Start, Stop, Continue.  For me, the common thread with all these exercises is they normally involve some type of physical token – post-it note or index card – on the wall or table.  When you get close to decision making, people need to see it in writing.  If it is not in writing, then it is harder for the participants to understand what they are committing to implement.

Every game in Gamestorming book can be found on the Gamestorming website.  In addition, the website allows you to read comments from other people who have played the games and leave comments about your experiences.  In addition, there is another very popular game site called Tasty Cupcakes which has at least as many games that can be found in the Gamestorming book.  Finally, if you are REALLY into games, each year in the Spring, Agile New England has a game conference where you can play games and create new games.

As we close this article on Gamestorming, I want to offer you two ways to evaluate if the games (and Scrum) are having an impact in your organization.

  1. Are people having more fun in meetings and conversations?  I know we are not supposed to talk about fun at work and that “fun” at work is predefined and controlled by management to certain locations and times, i.e “no fun before noon” or “you will have fun at the company picnic”.  Just because your managers are not having fun does not mean you can’t.  Not having fun is their choice, but any successful creative endeavor, like building software, requires people to be relaxed and make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and having fun helps people get into that state of mind.  In my experience, games transform a long-drawn out meeting that sucks into collaborative, energetic conversation that builds momentum.
  2. Are you having conversations you never had before at work?  One of the key ways to if the games are having a positive impact on your organization is to make a note of how many new conversations you are having.  If you have never discussed the topic before, or perhaps it is a familiar topic but it is not following the predefined path of what are the acceptable boundaries, then the games are working!  Keep up the good work and congratulate yourself on a job well-done.