The Rules of the Game: Understanding the Unknown

A colleague and I wait by the large gorilla statue in the entrance hall. Dumisani Nyoni joins us. As part of our Exploring Change Processes workshop, Dumi is introducing us to a game used by Pioneers of Change (

Right, says Dumi, It’s simple. I would like you to go into the room and try to figure out what’s happening. Try to figure out the rules of the game. Speak about what you see and what you think is going on. Keep talking so everyone else has an idea of what is going through your mind. Doesn’t sound too hard.

We return to the workshop room as the game begins and we set to solving this little mystery. We see everyone walking around, weaving in and out of the tables and chairs. The pace changes – sometimes almost coming to a standstill and then speeding up again. People watch others in the room, changing direction. Arms fold and unfold. Hands go in and out of pockets. Something purposeful is going on – but what?

Five minutes later, Dumi thanks us all and asks us to return to our seats. Did we figure out what everyone was doing? Did we figure out the rules of the game? – Dumi asks the two of us. No. And we begin to explore how it felt to be outsiders to the game, trying to figure out the rules.

Eventually the rule is revealed: All thirty people in the room (the players) were asked to secretly select two others and stay equidistant from them throughout the game. (See: How Do You Play Yours? The Change Game).

Now, a couple of days later, I’m wondering – Why didn’t we figure out the rules of the game? This wasn’t a question we really probed during the workshop itself, yet I think it is a powerful question.

In terms of the players: To what extent did the players want us to figure out the rules of the game? What were their objectives? Did they wish to help us understand the system or to prevent us from doing so? And what motivation lay behind?

And more importantly (to me at least right now): What could we – the outsiders – have done differently to increase the likelihood of figuring out the rules of the game?

How would the outcome have been different had we asked questions directly to the players? And what would have been the right questions to ask them? Would the players in the game have been able to answer our questions? And would they have felt at ease doing so? What could we have asked Dumi, the game leader, in order to clarify the rules governing our play?

How would it have been different had we stepped into the game (albeit not knowing the rules) rather than observing from the sidelines? What would the reactions of the other players have been? Would we have learned more by trying to get inside the game as it unfolded?

I won’t know now, but next time I’m trying to figure out the rules of the game I might take a different approach. What approach would an expert change consultant take?

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