Using Serious Games: Seven Tips for New Game Administrators

We just completed our Bright Green Learning Academy training course on “Using Interactive, Experiential Learning Games in Meetings to Communicate Messages (and have fun!)”  and part of our course includes selecting, adapting or making a new game and running it for the group – going through the stages of game administration:

  • Preparation (parameters, people, space, materials, set up, practice and testing)
  • Framing (why are we playing this game?)
  • Briefing (instructions, objectives, “rules”, safety)
  • Play (observation of dynamics, “rules” enforcement, role of participant observer, etc.)
  • Debriefing (what’s the point? Good questions to connect game experience to reality and action, discussion to co-create meaning. )
  • Deconstructing (break down)

It was wonderful to see the participants take on new games, work them up and then deliver them for the first time in the course. We know there is the Power of 10 when it comes to creating and mastering games (e.g. you need to play a game 10 times before it is bullet-proof, tweaking all the way), so there was a good opportunity during the games demonstration to generate tips for game administrators. Here are a few that I came up with:

  1. Watch safety considerations, particularly in games where people are moving around (safety includes both watching chairs and cables and other obstacles in the room if you are inside, curb and pedestrians if outside, but also the physical abilities of participants. For the latter, create roles for people who might prefer to be participant observers – what should they watch out for to report back in the debriefing?)
  2. Write down the “Rules” or instructions if they are at all complicated. If there are only 2 rules or no rules, then don’t bother (you can repeat them as needed), but if there are a number of rules or parameters to your game, put them on a flip chart and keep that in the room. If you are using this game for the first time, or times, this will also keep you tight and to the point in your briefing.
  3. Master the space when giving instructions and briefing – this is more of a feeling of confidence that game administrators need to give (remember participants have never played this game and in some cases might have some anxiety about what will happen and what to do). This includes using an instructive tone (think manager talking to construction crew),  accuracy and word choice, clarity of speech. Go for crisp and clear instructions so that there is no doubt about how to start, which can inhibit the early stages of the game. If instructions about how to play are a little woolly it can allow for widely different interpretations of the instructions.  It is important to remember that, in some games, just ONE word out-of-place can affect the whole outcome of the game.
  4. Practice until you get your instructions to the point where you don’t get blank looks and that ONE word doesn’t creep in.
  5. Watch your framing. If you are playing in discovery mode (that is, where people don’t know what to do to “win” the game, but are playing it for the first time), you might not want to give too much framing except to say that the game will help us experience something important that we are or will be discussing. If you are playing in confirmation mode (where people do know the right behaviour and are practicing that), then you can be more explicit with the framing.
  6. Don’t let participants analyse too much the game at the onset – there is a temptation for the game administrator to ask for questions after the briefing. In some cases this will open the floodgates of questions, analysis of this and that, exploration of options, check this and that, and before you know it the timing is up and you haven’t played. If there is a technical question that is fine, but encourage participants to start and try more or less right away after your good, clear and concise briefing, as most of the time this is where the learning will happen. It’s better if they experience the dynamics of the game, rather than discussing it forever first.
  7. Let the participants contribute to the debriefing. As eager as you may be to share the “punch line” for the game, use a good questioning sequence to let participants identify what happened, why, how it manifests in real life, and what to do about it.  You can perhaps repeat and reinforce the key points at the end, but don’t lead with that.

Games provide a wonderful moment for participants and teams to break out of the usual context of workshops or training, to use their brains, bodies and senses in different ways, and can be powerful learning experiences when they are administered in an equally powerful way!

(our next Games workshop in the Bright Green Learning Academy schedule is in autumn 2017, join us to learn more about using learning games meaningfully in your workshops and meetings!)

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Thumbwrestling Game Rules and Lessons from an Appreciative Inquiry Makeover

A while ago I wrote a blog post about how I reframed the learning from a game called Thumbwrestling using an Appreciative Inquiry approach. The blog post was called “Activity Makeover using Appreciative Inquiry: From STUPID to SMART.”

This game gives insights about collaboration versus competition and bases the debriefing on what makes people naturally take a more competitive approach to such a game (and lose). In the meantime I have had numerous people write to me and ask me for the rules of the Thumbwrestling game itself, so I promised to write it up in the way that I play it.

I have been playing this particular game in teambuilding workshops for many years and if you want a very thorough description, you can go to the Systems Thinking Playbook by Linda Booth Sweeney and Dennis Meadows, which features this game. It doesn’t have the debriefing that I describe in my blog post, although it has evolved out of the same game mechanic and lessons.  I am sure that the first time I played it was with Dennis.

Here are the basic instructions:

  1. Ask everyone to pick a partner with whom they will thumbwrestle (people play in pairs);
  2. Tell them to lock hands with their partner by clasping the fingers of their right hands (with thumbs pointing up) – they can do this standing or sitting – standing is more fun! (Note: If you have never Thumbwrestled as a kid, then there are plenty of amusing how-to videos on YouTube! This is the same basic game with some new parameters.)
  3. Demonstrate with another person a very physical and aggressive way to play and tell people not to pinch hard and cause any pain or injury;
  4. Explain that they get a point by pinching the thumb of their opponent;
  5. Tell them they have 1 minute to get as many points as they can; 
  6. Shout “go!” 
  7. Time them and then shout “Stop!”
  8. Ask who got 1 or more point (raise their hand), 2 or more, and go up until you have the winner(s) (most people will only have won 1 or 2 points);
  9. At least one or two pairs generally have gotten 30 or 40 points by collaborating rather than taking a competitive approach – have them demonstrate their technique.

Now you go into the blog post to debrief  (Activity Makeover Using Appreciative Inquiry: From STUPID to SMART) and discuss what motivates people to take on a more competitive approach when collaboration clearly gets them many more points. Ask them where they see this in their workplaces and in real life. The activity makeover and the game helps them think about how to notice a system that makes people behave in a STUPID way to thinking about one that is much SMARTer…


Writing Good Instructions for Workshop Games

I have just finished reviewing a set of instructions for a series of games that a big group will be undertaking as a part of a team development exercise. There will be 70 people in teams of 12,  8 different game stations, and a very ambitious time schedule (about 20 minutes per activity), so the set up and instructions for each game needs to be very, very good.

Teams will be moving from station to station. As each team reaches their new game station, players they will receive the instructions for the game at that location. At that moment, they need to have all the necessary information, in an easy to read format and be able to understand it very quickly.

Here are some of the things I am checking for in the game descriptions and instructions for the games, and where needed, modifying:

  • Is the game text too long, too wordy or too dense? Make it shorter with only essential information, put game steps into numbered points, lists into bullet points instead of narrative text, and numbers for scoring into a table; 
  • Are there any vocabulary words or idioms in the descriptions that might be misconstrued or misunderstood? Make the language as simple as possible;
  • Is there any ambiguity in the description text or rules? Make it crystal clear so no time lost in doubt or disagreement on interpretation among team members; 
  • Is there consistency in format and layout of the games’ instructions? Reduce any inconsistencies in the way the rules are written in terms of level of detail, the order that information is given, the font, etc. so no time is wasted and teams will learn and read faster as they do through the games sequence;
  • Is the goal of each game clear? (e.g. How do you win – what do you have to do to win?) Rewrite as needed and put that up front in the instructions, so the rest of the instructions are read with that goal in mind;
  • Is the scoring clear and consistent within each game and overall across the series of games? Make sure it is clear how you get points and how many points for different aspects of the game (as applicable), make sure the points levels are the same for the different games so if a team doesn’t do well at one game they are not overly penalised.
  • Is there anything subjective in the scoring (like points for quality or how things look)? If so decide in advance the criteria to award points and who will award them. This can potentially cause lots of disgruntled players. 
  • Are the materials needed/provided to play the game listed in checklist format? Create a checklist so the team can quickly assess if they have all needed materials.
  • Are the rules or steps numbered? Number these so team members can discuss them/refer to them by using their number as shorthand.
Some other considerations for good game instructions:

Consistency: Make sure the delivery of the rules to each team is consistent. For example, we are providing rules printed on an A5 card and putting that in a sealed envelope that the teams get when they reach the spot where the game will take place.
Testing: We are having someone test each activity first by following our instructions, to make sure steps are clear as well as feasible in the amount of time allocated. If it takes twice as long to complete as allocated, that obviously won’t work. Things sometimes look feasible on paper, but when you are in situ, there may be features of the game environment that cause slow downs.
Game Aids: I am also making up job aids, like a score card for each team, so they can keep their own scores. We are also making a larger game score card on a flipchart, posted at each game station, so teams can see how other teams scored.

Teams love to play games, and the design and make up of a good game takes much care and consideration. Good instructions are crucial to make sure that playing the game actually meets its goals and results in both learning and fun.  

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Workshop Games Everywhere: Even from Proust and Vanity Fair

I was working with an intact team (e.g. working in the same office space) recently on a retreat, the third that I had run with them over the years. Now, working with the same group on a long term basis is wonderful for a facilitator as it absolutely demands creativity and innovation; you cannot fall back on your favourite workshop activities over and over again (like you may be tempted to do when you work with new groups each time).

For this retreat, as for many, further strengthening relationships among team members was one of the soft outcomes desired – getting to know one another better, helping people look behind the office every day and delve a little deeper into what makes people tick.

One of the opening activities for any workshop is some kind of introductions at the onset of the day. Now with an intact team, this might be more of a “check-in” as everyone knows each others name, position in the organisation, etc. For this particular team, which in some cases knew each other from years of co-work, I decided to go a little deeper than usual and still keep it relatively light in the dynamic.

I am a fan of Vanity Fair magazine and one feature of the magazine is an interview, called the Proust Questionnaire (after the French novelist, critic and thinker Marcel Proust) on the last page that has a set of intriguing questions – things like:

  • What is your idea of perfect happiness? 
  • Who are your heroes in real life? 
  • What is your motto?
  • Which historical figure do you most identify with?
  • What is your favourite journey?
  • Which talent would you most like to have?
  • What is your most treasured possession?
…and so on. I took out some of the strongest ones, like “What would you regard as the lowest depth of misery?” and “How would you like to die” etc. because that was not the feeling that I was going for at 09:00 in the morning. You can see some samples of the Proust Questionnaire on the Vanity Fair website.
In the end I had a good number of questions that I liked, but in total that was less than the number of people, so I used the questions twice.
  1. First I numbered the questions 1-14 (that is how many questions from the Proust Questionnaire that I ended up using), I liked the progression in the Vanity Fair interviews, so I used that order more or less.
  2. Typed them into a matrix that fit on an A4 sheet and printed it out.
  3. Copied it twice on coloured paper – yellow- I did this as it is just a little more visually interesting than the white paper that is laying all over workshop tables.
  4. I cut up the matrix, both sheets, so that I had 28 little squares, numbered, each with one of the Proust Questionnaire questions on it. 
  5. I put all the little squares of paper in an envelope.
Running the activity: 
  1. After I briefed the activity, I asked everyone to pick a square of paper from the envelope, while I walked around with the envelope.
  2. I told them that some questions would be doubled up.
  3. I gave people 2-3 minutes to think about their answers. As they picked slips and read the questions I heard some nervous laughter. ( I let someone who wanted to change their question, although the second one was not much “easier” than the first)
  4. Then I called the numbers one at a time and asked people to stand, read their question and share their response. 
  5. We did this until all were read out and everyone had answered.
What worked

The random nature of the question selection (picking from an envelope), the diversity of questions (they were all different except for the few pairs- I read out the questions that were not selected, as even in themselves they are thought-provoking questions), and the unknown ordering (not knowing who would be next) all added some surprise and a little drama to the exercise. And the provocative nature of the Proust Questionnaire questions really made people think. It was still challenge by choice – people could change their question if they wanted, but there really are no easy questions, and they could choose how they wanted to answer it. 
As the facilitator I could also choose the easier or the more provocative questions from the Proust Questionnaire depending on what I knew about the group and their interest in pushing the envelope together. As I mentioned, this was a group of people who know each other pretty well, but in most cases, these kinds of topics had not come up in their every day work discussions, so people listened and were deeply curious about their colleagues’ responses.
The answers were conversation starters all of them, they added something different to what colleagues already knew about their fellow team members, and it was a fun way to start the day. And in this case, the game was NEW (they were the first group to ever play that particular “game”). 
You might need a new activity or game from time to time when you work with groups frequently. Look around you – you can find game and activity elements everywhere, even inspired by Proust or your favorite magazine! 
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How to Be Green and Great: Learning About Business Transformation with a New Simulation Game

Last week I had the great pleasure to play a trial of the new Green & Great Game with Piotr Magnuszewski.

(In case you want to know more about the kind of interesting people who develop useful learning games like this – based on computer models –  you can look up Piotr who is a faculty member of the Centre for Systems Solutions,  a Senior Associate of the AtKisson Group (as I am), and a Balaton Group Member  – a network of systems dynamicists and modellers, systems thinkers and sustainability advocates. )

Green & Great is a new simulation game that helps players explore the “business transition to sustainability“. The game can played online or preferably in a room with multiple teams, face-to-face, with computer assistance. Up to 6 teams, with 1-5 members each, can play simultaneously and the game takes around 2 hours to play the five 1-year cycles of company strategy and decision-making.

In the simulation, the teams run consulting companies that are advising businesses working in the energy and finance sector (currently, more sectors are being added). The teams go through the decision making cycle of bidding on projects, hiring people with specific competencies, developing internal projects and making staff assignments (and other HR decisions such as training).

The results of these decisions are reported using the Compass (N=Nature, E=Economy, S= Society, and W=Wellbeing) which gives you progress indicators for your company as well as information on your competitors. Teams also get market information annually, about how the sectors are changing, upcoming legislation, what is being expected by consumers regarding environmental reporting, etc.

Teams run their companies for 5 years, and all the usual things happen: people may quit (but of course you can do something about job satisfaction – training or green benefits anyone?), reputation is important (and again the choices on external and internal projects can affect that – what about that CSR reporting project?), sectors change as certain consumer and government demands around transparency change), companies make money (or don’t) based on the decisions they make and the impacts of their projects on those compass points (some projects may not be available to you, as in the real world, if your reputation in that area is below a certain accepted level). There’s a lot to manage and monitor, but then that is the nature of successful businesses and including those moving in and around the sustainable development space.

My two hours with the game flew by and I really enjoyed playing Green & Great. I found the game very thought-provoking, complex but not overwhelming, and fun! (Which is one of my top criteria for games!)

I played my company team on my own, which is always going to be easier, as I only had myself to convince for decision-making. Because we were trialing it, we talked quite a lot with Piotr and among the competing teams, which might be less in a real game. I can imagine however playing it with a team and the rich conversations which would surround our choices about what kind of projects to take, how to build up a committed workforce, to take our sustainability values seriously and still make a good income. I was delighted that I ended up with high scores around Nature, Society and Wellbeing and towards the top for Economy (not the highest, but a satisfying result – we didn’t go broke keeping our other three compass indicators high – not even close!)

The game is great for consulting company teams, or for businesses who are working towards and trading in the sustainable development field. It is also an excellent way for people in the NGO or public sector to learn more about their private sector partners and the environment in which they are working. The game gives good opportunities for insight into how business is transforming and can help enrich the dialogue with business that you find in public-private partnerships.

It’s available now to play, and you can either play it with your own teams internally, with mixed sector teams if you have a joint project, or if you are a game administrator/facilitator/trainer you can play the game with your clients. They are continuing to enhance Green&Great and are happy to have feedback (which I was also happy to give – it is nice when a game is constantly evolving.)

Curious? If you want to try it out for yourself you can sign up for a demo and free trial on the website: Green & Great

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For Fans of FishBanks: The Renewable Resources Management Computer Simulation Game

For those of you who are fans of the FishBanks game, originally developed by Dennis Meadows, there is a new online version that has been created by Dennis and John Sterman at MIT. In this free online version you can play as an individual or part of a class. It can be accessed here: FishBanks Online Version.

I recently ran it twice (in French no less) using the Board game version (in the photo above) and it remains one of my favorite games to play that provides profound lessons about common pool renewable resources management, using systems thinking, growth against limits, and collaboration vs competition.

If you want the Board Game version (which comes with software for your laptop, instructions and all the role descriptions and pieces), you can access it here: FishBanks Board Game Version.

This second link tells you more about the game, how to use it and what kind of learning objectives it reaches, as well as how to order it.

Let’s go fishing (sustainably)!

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Thumb Wrestling for SMART People

I wrote in a past blog post about using Appreciative Inquiry to “makeover” the lessons from a great team game called Thumbwrestling. The post was called: Activity Makeover Using Appreciative Inquiry: From STUPID to SMART.

In that blog post I go through in some detail the debriefing, after the action happens (see that post for this info). But I didn’t describe the main set up, briefing and steps of play. I had a request recently to describe the game administration, so I post them here for information.

First of all, I was delighted to find that Thumb Wrestling (aka ThumbWar) is really well described here in Wikipedia. I was interested to read that in some of the chants that are used (by children I guess, I have never heard them in my workshops) the phrase “You are stupid and I am great” is used. It is interesting that we often used (in the past) STUPID as a mnemonic to help understand what structure creates the behaviour of competition (Small goals, Time pressure, Untrusting partners, etc.). In the blog post mentioned above, we used an Appreciative Inquiry approach to make that over into then new mnemonic of SMART or SMARTS.

Thumbwrestling Game

To set the game up, the Game Operator announces that “We will engage in a simple competition called Thumb Wrestling. Everyone needs to find a partner to play”. At that point the Game Operator also finds a partner to do a quick demonstration; someone who has been briefed to demonstrate a rather aggressive style of play. In the demo, you lock hands with your demo partner and tell people that their goal is to “Get as many points as you can.” You inform people that they will have 15 seconds to do this, and then you demo how to make a point by elaborately struggling to pin the thumb of your opponent, warning people not to hurt each other. Ask everyone to keep track of their own points. You then shout “Go!” and time out the 15 seconds, shout out a 2 second warning.

In the debriefing, you can survey how many points people got, and then have the pair with the highest points demonstrate their style, which is bound to be collaborative, based on trust and their ability to ignore norms, models, language, time pressure, and small goals which normally influence people to play this game in a highly competitive way. Now the blog post on debriefing kicks in – so see that for more!

The description above should be enough to help anyone run the game as a team building exercise (again see the previous post for debriefing). If you want a better description with the systems thinking frame, with more precise timing and briefing/debriefing questions, Linda Booth Sweeney and Dennis Meadows have written them up in the Systems Thinking Playbook, which also includes a DVD of someone running all the games so you can see exactly how to administer them.

Happy wrestling!

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In the Absence of Metaphor: Games and New Groups

As Facilitators and Trainers working with new groups and organizations, we occasionally get strong reactions to descriptors like “interactive”, “games-based”, “experiential” when explaining our work. When you dig a bit deeper into those responses, you hear stories of team-building sessions gone awry, icebreakers that were too “silly”, or activity choices that were “pointless”, in someone’s estimation.

The gap in meaning, I might guess, is due to the absence of metaphor.

Metaphor is the concept of understanding one thing in terms of another – or constructing an analogy between two things, ideas or actions.

Picking the right team building game for example, is not just a question of what the facilitator likes or feels competent delivering; it is selecting a game that provides a platform to explore some of the key issues that the team has, and creating a metaphor in a game that lets team members identify them, work through them, test options, discuss them based on the behaviour in the game, and then draw lessons or ideas that can be useful in their daily work. 

Even a quick activity, like an icebreaker or introductions, can be linked to a useful metaphor too. For example, I recently used Thiagi’s Hello game to both have people collect information about their experience, expectations, etc., which was good insight in itself, and then in the debriefing asked the group to think about how the exercise might be a metaphor for their work. This game features a number of small groups concurrently collecting information from the whole group in very short segments for planning, collecting, analysing, and reporting of around 3 minutes each! This particular group had some issues that team members wanted to explore about dealing with time pressure, with cooperation and information sharing, and this game was perfect for both introductions and to begin to lightly focus and reflect on these things, even in the first 15 minutes of the day.

Think about where you can find or create metaphor in  facilitation and training work. Any extra design element, no matter how small, that makes the link between the activity or game and the work that people are doing (or hoping to do better) can deepen the connection and the learning. And of course, it is important to bring attention to the metaphor, through debriefing, questioning, noticing. Your role as a facilitator is to help people see and make those connections. When done with skill, this helps makes both the meaning of the activity as well as your choice in introducing it much more obvious to participants. Finally, it optimises the time and refreshingly gives people permission to play again (“serious play” of course).

Some groups might need some extra work to help regain credibility for experiential learning. By strengthening the metaphor and meaning of games and activities, you are both investing in a group’s future success learning together through interactive techniques, and also hopefully softening resistance, making your life easier on the day and afterwards.


Gaming an Interview: Using Interviews to Explore Teammember and Teamwork Potential

I just had a suggestion come in to help make job interviews more informative, and therefore increase the potential of finding a match between the candidate, the position, and team within which it sits. How do you learn enough about someone (and help them learn enough about you) to make this important match successful?

Traditional interviews often start with “Tell us a little about yourself” and end with asking the candidate a series of standard questions that have been developed to give some insights on how people will approach the task being advertised. The sampling of information about the interpersonal elements comes during a 30-60 minute timeframe, during which everyone on both sides (supply and demand) are in an entirely artificial and often rather awkward situation. If you wanted more information, and a different kind of information, why not play a game?

What an interesting interview, from the candidate’s perspective, if you were asked to play a problem-solving game with the whole team – it could explore notions of team development, communication, trust, leadership or any other number of important team elements. It could also feature some good debriefing questions (What metaphor does this exercise bring to mind? When have you seen these dynamics/behaviours before? What did you do? etc.) which would help people share a bit more (all around) and with a great deal of nuance about their paradigm of team work and their approach to work more generally.

If you were hiring a trainer or facilitator, you could even ask them to bring in the game and run it for you (we did this at LEAD when we were hiring the next Director of Capacity Development). We actually looked forward to the interviews and could see people in a familiar and comfortable role (than sitting in a chair on the other side of a long table!)

An added benefit for the recruiting team is that it is more fun to play a game than simply sitting in interviews all day and asking the same questions (change the game each time to keep them on their toes), and it provides a team development opportunity that is valuable whatever the outcome of the interview.

Thanks, Andy, for the idea!

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When I Was a Game

I arrived at the Chicago workshop about 5 minutes late and was horrified to see all the participants in their seats looking at the trainer/facilitator who was in mid-sentence describing the objectives of the day. He didn’t even pause as he said “gruetzi” to me (“hello” in Swiss German), to which I quickly replied “bonjour” (I don’t speak Swiss German), and tried to quietly sneak to the only remaining seat in the room, which of course was at the first table. I grimaced as I walked in front of him to take that seat. He never broke his opening patter, but for that first word of welcome, and didn’t address me directly again as he informed the participants that I didn’t know that I was the first game for the day.

Take out a piece of paper, he said, and write down three things you know about this Mystery Person (the group had already met for several days previously, and I was only joining on the fourth day). Including, he added, how you pronounce her name (I had just written it on a sticky name tag) with a hard “G” or a soft “G”. The winner, he announced, wins a BMW.

People took out paper, and peered quizzically at me. After literally 30 seconds of reflection he asked for everyone to share one of their guesses. I was to answer yes or no as they postulated about me based on the little bit of data that they had collected in that 2 minutes since I walked through the door. What do we know about our Mystery Guest, he asked, and people started…  I disliked being late. I wasn’t good with directions. I spoke another language. I had a job where I worked in front of people. I had travelled by plane to get there. And on and on. It was simply amazing how many things people could discern or infer from so little input in such a short amount of time.

At the end, he asked me to say a few words about myself. At that point, my introduction to the group was alarmingly short as I built on the many uncanny, correct guesses of my fellow participants. At the end, he asked people to  count up their “points” at which moment there was a flurry of quick questions. He said “congratulations!”, without being too concerned about who actually had the most points, and welcomed me as a newcomer into the Thiagi Interactive Techniques Certification Workshop.

* * *

What a wonderful way to be warmly integrated into a formed and familiar group, what an interesting way to involve everyone in this introduction process. What an excellent way to reinforce the fact that your participants know much more than you probably give them credit for (or can figure out for themselves), and that you can cover a lot of ground, hitting multiple objectives (introduce a new person, integrate him/her, play a game with some learning points like these, get people’s attention and wake them up at 08:00 on a Thursday) in only 5 well-used minutes.

This is the work of Thiagi (Sivasailam Thiagarajan), who holds the title of Resident Mad Scientist at the Thiagi Group. With its Indiana USA origins (starting “in a basement” some 30 years ago), this group is building an increasingly global network of games enthusiasts and Thiagi Certified Facilitators (like me!) who use these kinds of interactive techniques as a basis for engaging people in our facilitation and training work. And in that short introduction to our Certification day, Thiagi helped us see that not only are we people who design and run games for learning, we can be games too. There are no boundaries! How different might daily life be, how much more might we notice or learn, how much more fun might we have, if we knew that we could make a game of literally anything?

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New Systems Thinking Game: The Flash Mob Game

I just finished co-facilitating a week-long leadership training course with LEAD’s Edward Kellow. Systems Thinking was one of the cross-cutting skills components, which started with an introduction on Day 1 (introduction and drawing Behaviour Over Time Graphs), and then on Day 2 we got into reading and drawing Causal Loop Diagrams. Both were entirely based on a case study which we would be exploring and visiting later that week – in this case the London 2012 Olympics and its sustainability legacy (See Towards a One Planet Olympics). I had introduced systems thinking in the previous year’s LEAD programme – See a previous blog post about: How to Go From 120 PPt slides to 2! I think this year’s approach to spread it throughout the week’s curriculum was even better. ) This game helped us pick it up even at the very end.

We had worked throughout the week in so many different groups and constellations, from Digital Pairs (everyone was given an unknown  partner before the workshop to introduce to the group the first night solely from online research into their Digital Identity), to Learning Trios, Presentation Groups, Daily News Groups and LEAD Associate Project Groups. To tie this together with systems thinking, to make visible these interconnections and to celebrate this work, I designed a new game for the closing, called the Flash Mob Game.

We had played the Systems Thinking Playbook Triangles Game earlier in the week (where people stand  equi-distant between two people who act as their reference points), and had explored how to spot systems around us, and to harness their inherent energies to help us meet our goals. So rhis new game was designed to play at the end to pick up those points, and to let people “close” the meeting in a fun way. Here is how the game goes:

Flash Mob Game

About this Game:
This game is perfect at the end of a longer workshop, or at least one that has given participants an opportunity to work in a number of different kinds of groups. It is an interesting way to make visible the  invisible connections that people have made over the course of the workshop. It also shows how something that from the outside seems chaotic, actually has a number of complex inter-relationships that only become obvious when needed, and over time (at least over the time of this game). Like a Flash Mob, the minute before and the minute after their inter-relationship becomes apparent, this seems like a normal crowd of unconnected and unrelated people.

Time Needed:
10-12 minutes

Space Needed:
An open space big enough for people to walk around in without bumping into things (can be inside or outside, we went outside).

Number of People:
From 15 to 50.

Equipment and Materials:
A bell or whistle (I prefer the softer sound of the bell).

Steps of Play:

  1. Ask participants to move to the open area to brief the game.
  2. Briefing: Tell people that they will be walking around on their own in the open area, and periodically stopping on your signal. They can walk anywhere they want and should keep moving without bumping into anyone (or anything!) While they are walking they should remain silent. Upon your signal (bell or whistle), they will stop, listen, and follow your instructions. When they hear the bell, they will start walking silently again.
  3. Ring your bell and ask people to start walking.
  4. Let them walk around for a minute, gently remind them not to speak if needed. Watch the group, this random milling around is somehow very beautiful.
  5. After a minute, ring the bell, and say the following, “Please go find your Digital Partner (pick a group in which they worked that week), say ‘Goodbye’ and tell them how much you enjoyed working with them this week.”
  6. All of a sudden people will go from a random place into a small group and start to talk. Give them a minute to say their goodbyes and a few words, and then ring the bell again. At this point they melt back into a meandering crowd, and start to walk again. Again wait a minute, and then ring your bell. This time say, ” Please go find your Learning Trio (or Presentation Group, or Daily News Group), say ‘Goodbye’ and tell them how much you enjoyed working with them this week.”
  7. I use the chronology of the workshop to call the groups, it just so happened that they started as Pairs, went to Trios, and then larger and larger groups. For the final group, I asked people to find their LEAD Associate Project Group, which was a newly formed group that would last for the duration of the 3-module programme. This time I told them to, “Find your LAP Group, say ‘Goodbye for now’ and tell them how much you are looking forward to working with them in the future”. Note: If you do not have any group or activity that continues after your workshop, you could say “Find all your fellow workshop participants, say ‘Goodbye for now’ and tell them how much you are looking forward to keeping in touch with them in the future”.
  8. After the final Goodbye, ring the bell and let the crowd start to walk again. After a few seconds, end the game and stop for a few words of debriefing.
  9. Debriefing: If this is at the end of the workshop, you might use it to reinforce some of the systems messages with a statement or observation about how if people outside could see the crowd walking they would never know what kind of interconnections there were in this group, what they have done and what they can do together. If it is earlier in the programme you can ask people to notice the different action at different time frames (random movement and purposeful groups). It is interesting to see how what might look like a number of interconnected people (things, ideas, etc.) might actually be connected in surprising, and potentially useful ways which you can understand if you observe the system carefully over time.

You could probably adapt this game to a mid-session time frame, or earlier in the workshop if you can identify different interconnections and inter-relationships between people and are sure that they are also aware of them. For example after introductions on Day 1, you could call it the Hello Flash Mob and ask people to find others who work in their sector, who come from the same country/town, etc. and say ‘Hello’ and tell them how nice it is to meet them. This would also help visualise a “crowd” self-organise and then melt into a crowd again. At the end of this version, you could ask them to find the people who are happy to be here, say ‘Hello” and tell them how much you are looking forward to working together this week/day/etc. I would still end with a bell and letting them walk away again. Then stop and debrief the game (as above).

Make sure you test it yourself, we just played it for the first time yesterday (and it worked beautifully)!

Just for fun, here are some of my favorite Flash Mob Videos: Central Station Antwerp, Grand Central Station New York

and Liverpool Street Station in London:


The Climate Change Playbook: The Making Of

Can you imagine getting an invitation to a workshop that has as its main goal playing 20 games? Would you go?

Those invitations went out a few weeks ago, and we had a very good response to a test workshop we held in Bonn aimed at playing and discussing 20 games that deliver messages around climate change, using systems thinking concepts.

Dennis Meadows, Linda Booth Sweeney and I have been working together for the last few months to take 20 games from the original Systems Thinking Playbook, written by Linda and Dennis, and adapt them for climate change learning. That process is more complicated than you would think! We each have 6/7 games we are working on, originally selected from a larger number in the original book, and folding in climate change messaging is like a dance. You need to deeply understand the dynamic of the game and what happens (or could happen if adapted). With that in mind you need to move your focus over to the climate change world and consider related dynamics, whether in the natural or human (political/economic/social) systems. Then it is an iterative thought exercise to bring those two elements together so that they work elegantly together in the end and are not too contrived.

Sometimes it is very obvious how the game and the key climate change learning points link and relate. And sometimes it is like doing sudoku in your head. It took us from 6-8 hours per game (so far) to make the connection strong enough to use.

There are different ways to make this link (between the game, climate change and systems thinking). You can change the frame of the game to put people in a climate-related context while they play. You can use the debriefing questions to guide people in making the link with the climate debate or dynamic. You can put in data, an observation, quotes from climate specialists, or elements from the news and current events to anchor the game to climate change. Or in some cases you can play the game and ask people what the link is (of course you need to have an answer too in case you draw blank stares).

We tried all of these approaches in the test workshop for our 20 games. They all worked in different ways. Of course, we were fortunate to have a room full of climate and games specialists, which our partners from GTZ (GTZ Climate Task Force) had invited, to play through the games, analyse them and give us great feedback to further strengthen the climate learning.

Our agenda was simply a list of games, and our table of contents will be that too. So we wanted to create a of narrative that held them together, a thread that helped facilitators and educators understand how they might use them. We created two organizing principles for the games day, which we will also use for the book.

First, we used a systems “map” as the organizing principle. This was a stock and flow diagram with stocks such as CO2 in the atmosphere/ocean, heat in the atmosphere, and ice cover, and flows like CO2 emissions, heat in, heat out, ice melting, etc. We had that up in our workshop room and positioned the message from each game around these elements (sometimes before and sometimes after the game). It was not too much of a stretch to map out the lessons from the games – some of which were about natural aspects, and some were more human system dynamics with communication messages, collaboration and competition, etc. We found it useful, and people appreciated this signposting to pull the games together.

The second way of clustering the games was by use. Some of the games are mass games which can be used for large audiences, who might be sitting in an auditorium. They can be used during presentations and speeches to make points, and people can play them sitting in their chairs. Some of the games are demonstration games, which a small number of volunteers can play for a larger group of say 35-50, and the lessons will become obvious to both those playing and watching. The third type of game is a participation game which everyone needs to play to draw the learning, so this would be for a typical workshop size group of 10-25 people.

We also used materials as a criteria for selecting the games initially, not wishing to have any of them be too materials/equipment intensive. In the end, our games kit included: Ropes, balls, coins, paper cups, markers, scrap paper, pens, hula hoop (collapsible), ball of yarn, a newspaper, and a rubber chicken. (I always worry about a customs agent opening my bag in a crowded place.)

We spent 8 hours that day playing our games, each of which run from 2 to 25 minutes in length. We used a 10-minute plenary discussion after each game to identify with the participants ways to strengthen either the game mechanics or the climate change frame and lesson. We also used a Games Review Sheet, so that people could note any thoughts they had during the day individually. I came away with over 50 pages of notes and ideas!

We are now integrating the ideas, revising our games and their write-ups, each of which is from 3-5 pages and written for the facilitator. There is still plenty of writing to do to produce the book and we hope to finish in July. It never made sense to sit at our desks and write games. This test workshop was an important and useful step in the process. There is a saying in gaming that you have to test play a game 10 times before it is really good. We have all played these games dozens and dozens of times in their original format. But they’re different now in some subtle and important ways, so this was an important step in “the making of” The Climate Change Playbook.

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An Amazing Group of People: Have a Party, Play a (Social Learning) Game!

Last Friday night I went to a birthday party that a friend of mine threw for herself. It was a nice group size, 10 women, that she had drawn from various of her different social groups. Because of this diversity, everyone knew somebody, but no one knew everyone, except for her. So she decided to play a game, as a way to bring the group together and get conversation going.

At the beginning of the party, in front of the fireplace, we all sat together searching around for things to talk about with one another, work, school, family, our origins – the usual conversation suspects. Going on in parallel, as people came in, my friend would hand them a small piece of paper and a pen and asked them to write something about themselves that was interesting and that the others might not know about them, and give it back to her. The first reaction in almost every case was, but I haven’t done anything interesting! Stumped, people held on to those papers until the very last minute when they would finally write something down and hand it back.

My friend put all the papers aside as we started dinner, and indeed there was one conversation going at one end of the table about school, and another at the top of the table about another topic, and a few people like me in the middle trying to listen to both, but not quite managing to jump in. At that point, getting our attention, our hostess announced that we were going to play our game. She told people that she was going to read one of the statements and that the table would have to guess who had done what. People laughed nervously at first, apologetically restating that they had simply not been able to think of anything very interesting. Then we started, my friend began reading the statements one at a time….and… within minutes we were in an uproar, bursting with laughter, incredulous with disbelief!

This amazing group of people had been all over the world and done remarkable things – someone was being quietly paid to go by train every Friday up to Gstaad one of the world’s poshest ski resorts to teach flute lessons to a couple of students living there (we never found out who they were), one person had competed nationally in Latin Dance competitions and danced in stage shows, another person had a long list of movie stars that she had bumped into (some literally) in New York City and great stories to go along with these, someone else had worked as a forensic DNA research specialist in Costa Rica and mesmerized us with the story of CSI-like drug-related murder that she had worked on and helped solve.

What a completely different conversation we had after that! No more super small talk, there was no going back.

With that small game, not only was the conversation brought together, giving us a shared experience, it also produced an opportunity for us to connect with each person individually, making finding further conversations topics a breeze. We also quickly went to much deeper quality connections, and more memorable ones. I will probably never forget these things I learned about these women, and when I see them next I will be able to reconnect with them in a much different way thanks to this relationship building shortcut. It was a service to social learning too, knowing more about what people do and can do, if anyone asks me for a good music teacher, I know where to send them.

This game also created lots of good energy, and that relaxed people who did not know one another. It helped us share things about ourselves that we are proud of, but that would have never come up in a normal cocktail party conversations (like taking blood samples from dismembered corpses), and gave people a real sense of accomplishment; we all left feeling much more “amazing” than when we arrived. Remarkable what a little social learning exercise can do!

If you want to do it yourself, here are the game instructions:

Materials: Squares of paper (1 per person – make sure they are all the same), pens, a bowl to put them in.

Time: 3-4 minutes per person playing.

Game steps:

  1. As people walk in give them a slip of pepole and ask them individually to write down one thing about themselves that is interesting, and that people in the room may not know about themselves. Don’t give them any examples (they won’t really need them), but you can ask them to think about their past, their home or work life, etc. Tell them NOT to write their name on the paper.
  2. Collect the papers and fold them over; put them in a bowl or hat.
  3. During dinner, or when everyone can listen and see you, announce the game and pull the first paper out of the bowl. Tell the person who wrote it not to announce themselves until someone has guessed, or the group is stumped.
  4. Read the first paper, and start the guessing! When the person has finally been guessed, ask them to talk a little about their experience, ask about context, or for a short story (this is where the good stuff comes) and let the group focus on that person for a time before going on to the next paper.
  5. People will naturally keep track of how many they guessed correctly – if you want you can have a small prize for the person who got the most correct.

Variation: In a workshop setting I use this game just after lunch or on Day 2 or 3, as on the first day if people really don’t know one another at all, they will not be able to guess. If people do know one another somewhat, you can move the game up in the agenda. With a larger group, I mix up and number the cards, and then at the start of the game, I ask people to take out a piece of paper and number it from 1 to 15 (the number of people playing), and I read through all the papers first with no out-loud guessing, simply asking people to write down their guesses. Once I have completed one reading, I go back and read them again in the same order (thus the need for numbering!) and this time, we guess and then move into the wonderful sharing and storytelling as people get to tell more about what they can do and know.

Whether at a birthday dinner or in a workshop, you just never know what a gold mine of experience, stories and knowledge you have with you in the room, until you ask, and then let the evening be naturally taken over to learning about your Amazing Group of People.

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(Almost) Foiled by a Doublet: Playing Around With Instructional Games and Puzzles


I couldn’t believe that this worked, on my first go, after reading Brian Remer’s puzzle instructions in this month’s Thiagi Gameletter (TGL-Seriously fun activities for trainters, facilitators, performance consultants, and managers).

Brian calls this instructional puzzle a “Doublet”, and cites Lewis Carroll (of Alice fame) as its originator. In Brian’s description of this puzzle he went from WORK to PLAY and APE to MAN in four to five one-letter changes. I picked my two words (thinking about a teambuilding request I received today) and wondered if I could go from a Group to a Team as easily. It worked beautifully, and I could immediately imagine how this could be used as a teambuilding exercise, or part of a visioning or strategic planning opener. (fyi, Brian Remer writes a thoughtful monthly e-newsletter from his Firefly Groupspark your passion for continuous learning is his tag line.)

(Imagine my dismay later when I discovered that I had spelled troupe wrong! More on that anon.)

There is also a great game in the March TGL called “Destination: Innovation” by Dimis Michaelides (I found his bio on an intriguing website called Facilitators Without Borders) that involves an airfight of paper airplane ideas and flying paperwad obstacles that I am eager to try at one point (I also wrote about a paper airplane idea in a previous post called Keeping it Fresh about innovating on workshop exercises.)

Ah, I always get excited by new games! A Facilitator has a faithful set of these kinds of frame games, tried and tested, and whenever you get a new one, or a new idea for one, you just can’t wait to try it…

*TROUP – UK Acronym for: Time to Restore Our Utility Poultry (no joke!) (Phew, saved! while I come up with another one that has all the words spelled correctly!)

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Make a Game Out of Any Workshop Topic (The drier the topic the better!)

Tweet version:
Dry topic? Make a GAME: Take topic, identify behaviour desired, make game to practice (team it, test it, time it), add drama, give prizes!

Imagine you have what might otherwise be a dry topic, like sharing a complicated membership application process (not that some people won’t find this exhilarating, of course). As exciting as that topic might seem to those people, you cannot imagine being able to keep a workshop room of 30 people’s undivided attention long enough to go through all the 18 steps (no joke), including the many subtleties and elaborate intricacies of the process, as told by one of the experts.

You still need to transfer the skills and knowledge – why not make a game of it?

You might go about it like this:

1. Pin down a goal: What do you want to be different? For example, regionalising a complicated membership application process so that everyone can conduct it, and not only a handful of HQ people.

2. Identify desired behaviours involved: What do people have to do to achieve this goal? For example, A) following the steps of the application process in the right order (order in this case is important because you need to have the right information to meet different external deadlines imposed by a larger governance and funding process), AND B) be able to make judgements on the quality and completeness of application information submitted at different steps. Here we have two very specific actions – perhaps two different games? (We made two games to keep elegantly simple what could otherwise have been too fiddly.)

3. Develop game materials: What are your physical manifestations of the game? For example, can the steps of the process be put on paper and then separated like a puzzle (without the step numbers of course), to be put back together? Can the questions be put in the form of a quiz worksheet?

4. Design the game mechanics: How do people play – in teams or individually? Are there specific roles? What are the steps of the process? What is moving around – are they building something, answering something, putting something in sequence?

5. Set the rules: What are the rules – what you can and cannot do? What do people have to do to “win”? (Be very consistent with the rules if you give them, otherwise some people get very frustrated if shift happens. Make very few and stick to them.)

6. Time it: How long is a round? How long is the game? (Make sure to keep to the time and don’t go soft on it unless specifically contracting an extension or change with the group, or else the boundaries of the game start to blur.)

7. Record it: How do people record their progress? (back to that quiz sheet) How do they know when they have won? Is there a place to record scores? (what about a big team scoreboard like in baseball?)

8. Test it: Who is the authority who will announce the winner? If appropriate, do you have on hand the “suggested answers” and someone who can explain them?

9. Add drama and surprise: Where can you add some of the fun that goes with games? Mysterious prizes – like a Skip-a-Session-To-Go-Shopping Card? (even better than Get-Out-of-Jail-Free!) Running light commentary like at an auction or football game? New unusual seating arrangement or new room? New teams with different team names? A “judge” as a role play? A bell or whistle to signal round changes?

10. Celebrate it: What is the prize for winning? Chocolates to share? Longer coffee break? First in line in the lunch buffet? The glory of being first (Note: Personally, I get a lot better engagement with more desirable prizes – excuse a pertinent yet non-work example: I cannot get my kids excited to compete in the Getting Dressed in the Morning Game if they know the prize is a Big Kiss from Your Mother.) Also, if you have two games, give different prizes.

11. Debrief it: How can you help the teams make the points? What questions can you ask for people to notice their learning or question aspects of the practice?

It’s certainly not as easy as it sounds to make a good game that people will have fun playing and also have it be a successful learning intervention. One of the most important steps is of course:

12. Practice it: Make sure you know how to brief and debrief it, know and have tested the rules, and have all the measurements of success and prizes ready to go.

Then change the name of your workshop session from: Introduction to Regionalising the Membership Application Process to GAMES DAY! (and at the end of the session, instead of “Good Work” you can delightfully say “Thanks for Playing!”)

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Who Wants to Be A…Converting Game Shows to Workshop Learning Games

For an event that combines product designers, technology experts and policy makers, you want to move into as many innovative “integrative” spaces as possible. That takes buy-in from all parties, as well as lots of courage!

On Tuesday, the second day of a 2-day international conference on sustainable products and services in Essen, Germany, we took the familiar format of “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” and converted it into “Who Wants to Be a Sustillionaire” (credit to the CSCP team for the title!) We used this modified format to do something interesting and new for plenary reporting on a series of 5 parallel workshops, in which 200 people from 29 countries took a set of project ideas to their next stage of development.

Many conferences have a combination of plenary sessions and parallel workshops as a part of their design. The challenge is how to bring in the learning and outcomes from the parallel work back to the whole group in a way that is not a boring sequential set of oral reports from the workshop organizers.

It’s an interesting decision about whether to do plenary report-backs at all. Really large conferences don’t bother. Medium-sized ones with community-building goals, often try. And it is a challenge for organizers and facilitators to do this in a way that is engaging and not sleep-inducing (heaven forbid adding into the mix the after lunch snooze-time zone.)

One compelling reason to do after-workshop reporting, is that it ups the stakes in terms of quality outcomes. If you need to report back to 200 people what you accomplished during your 2 hour session, you put some extra effort into it and want it to be good. Another pro is that it promotes more authenticity in reporting, as you have your whole group of 40 or so participants in the room witnessing and hopefully validating your description of what came out of the event.

So there are some good arguments around why to try to bring some of the flavour and learning from parallel sessions into a plenary setting. We decided to do it.

So back to our game session, “Who Wants to Be A Sustillionaire”. We thought it would be interesting to get each of the Project Incubators (the titles of our parallel workshops) to give us two questions, in the familiar multiple-choice format of the game show. We would combine them all into one game round which would be delivered by Powerpoint in the plenary after the conclusion of the parallel sessions.

On each slide we had the question, and then an A, B or C choice. The next slide had the same question with the right answer highlighted. There were 10 questions. Each question was asked to the audience by the game host (in this case it was me), and their answers were collected in different ways. After some of the questions (at least one per workshop) I asked someone from that particular Project Incubator, either an organizer or participant, to tell us a little more about the question’s answer and in doing so some of the results of their workshop.

It was ambitious, we got some laughs, and good humoured responses. In retrospect, I would do it again. Here are some of the things I learned about the conversion process, converting the game show format to the learning format, that I would consider next time:

What I liked:

  1. I could administer the game from the audience, I had a lapel mike and walked through the audience as I asked the questions which were shown on the big screen at the front of the plenary. I also had a hand mike, so I could either ask the group to respond, or I could ask individuals the questions. It made it more spontaneous.
  2. The quiz was at the end of the conference, so I knew many people by that point, and when I needed to pick an individual to answer a question, I knew who might be happy to answer a queston in front of a group of 200 people, and who might add a little extra humour to their answer.
  3. I thought 10 questions was about right, I would not have wanted more (perhaps a few less, but generally, the 10 questions went pretty quickly).
  4. I thought it worked well to collect the answers in different ways. For some I asked the audience to stand if they thought it was A, B or C; or asked them to raise their hands; or ask individuals. I could also lightly play on the ask the audience, phone a friend etc. (although no one took me up on the latter). I couldn’t easily use 50:50 as we always had 4 answers.

What I would try or do differently next time:

  1. I would number the questions (1 to 10), so as the game host, I could tell when we were getting near the end and raise the drama.
  2. I think I would put the questions in order from very easy to hard, like in the game show. Ours were mixed, and all of them had some funny answer choices, which was good, and at the same time made the questions continue to be rather easy. Next time, I would make the first ones very funny and easy, and then get gradually harder so that people didn’t automatically know the answers. It might give me more opportunity to get discussion going within the audience and not just between the audience and me.
  3. I would vary the kinds of questions – we used a template to make it easier for the session organizers to give us their questions. We even gave them some samples, and then asked them to give us the wrong answers in advance and then give us the right answer after their session. I think having different kinds of questions, and different numbers of answers (e.g 2, 3, 4, 5) might have given more variety, and therefore be easier to animate.
  4. I was a good idea to have question “stems” (e.g. What are the priorities for…? What is the role of…?) which were sent in advance (5 days) to the organizers who could use them to frame their questions. In the future we could go back to the game show for some familiar stems, to even further connect the audience to the energy of the tv game.
  5. I would build in a little more time between the end of the workshops and the quiz in plenary – we had a courageous 30 minute coffee break to collect the final answers, check through them and run the game. It did feel like the quiz was very fresh which was great, and perhaps little more time would help iron out any little hiccups, let us look over the quiz as a whole for the build in difficulty and drama, and give us a test period. A lunch break time length would be great.
  6. I might add a final question that is not directly related to the indvidual workshops but was a comment on the overall goal or message of the conference – that could be the 1 million Euro question.
  7. Adding monetary figures overall to each question might have added some fun, at the end I could have asked who wanted to donate their winnings to the Project Incubator follow-up (hopefully everyone would have raised their hand!)

These are some of the things I learned from the experiment to convert a game show into a conference reporting game. It was infinitely better than stand up reports, gave some interesting energy to the end of a lively conference, and gave people a shared experience that could continue to bind them together (more than sitting shoulder-to-shoulder together and listening to podium speakers).

I think it also showed the organizers in a good light, as courageous and willing to try something new. It promoted the idea that there are always new ways to do routine things, things that we might do without giving it much thought, especially in a familiar setting (in this case, like a conference). How can we keep from going on autopilot and missing out on the innovation and energy that comes from trying something different and new? And for sustainability, we will take all the innovation and energy we can get!


Coconut Cracker: The Anatomy of a Game

This morning I was surprised with another Mother’s Day present – a game called “Coconut Cracker” which my 8 year old had created for me.

The essence of the game was that you had to toss a pencil onto a small piece of paper (a post-it note). On the post-it note were drawn nine small circles about the size of a marble. The objective was to get the pointed end of the pencil into one of the nine circles. If you got the pointed end in a circle, this first victory allowed you to peel off one of four pieces of cello tape which were holding a decorated paper cover onto half a coconut. The first three wins got to peel off one of the cello tapes. The fourth person to win would be able to uncover the hollowed coconut and get the surprise inside.

The game was fun! We were three players (my competitors were 8 and 6 years old.) The circles were just the right size, not too small and not too big, so that we had to try, test approaches, refine our pencil tossing skills, and then could succeed in the task. Each piece of tape lifted added to our anticipation, we got excited, we got a little sloppy. The final tape took us a full few minutes to get. And then someone won! We cheered, he peeled off the last piece of tape, lifted the coloured paper cover and exposed the contents of the coconut, which was confetti (hence the name, Coconut Cracker), and delightedly threw it all over the room.

That was a good game that he had created. It had many of the components of the kinds of games we play over and over for learning and recreation, including:

  • Roles (we each had an action we needed to perform which was clear)
  • Rules (these were introduced at the beginning and did not change, very important)
  • Accounting system (we counted our throws, and the tape)
  • Macro cycle (over all we were trying to uncover the coconut)
  • Micro cycle (each round we were trying to get the pencil in a circle, and we needed to complete four rounds successfully)
  • Props (pencil, post-it, coconut, confetti – this game was probably inspired by finding a coconut shell and thinking “what can I do with this?”)
  • Referee (well, we all did that, we might have needed a way to deal with disputes)
  • Safety procedures (no one could put the pencil in his/her eye, or eat the confetti)
  • Media for introducing or debriefing the game (here my son did it orally, we were allowed to ask questions)
  • Name (something that does not give away the game, here Coconut Cracker was just on the edge, but since we did not know what was inside it seemed clever afterwards)

One further thing a more complex game has is a causal model, which governs between decisions and results. I would have to think about that one for Coconut Cracker, which is ultimately a game of skill.

At the end of the game, my son said that next time he might introduce more “levels” to the game – like having layers of paper covering the coconut, which when removed could become the next “game board” (e.g. post-it), each one a little more challenging, like smaller holes and further apart, so it would prolong the excitement and add to the skills development. I was amazed (very proud of course), and it made me wonder why we don’t create more games from scratch as adults. If we wanted to use them for something specific, like team development, or maybe as an entry into an innovation process, we could put more context into the frame.

There are some amazing people for whom creating games is a great art, one is Dennis Meadows, with whom I have had the great pleasure to learn over the years about games. He created wonderful sustainable development games like FishBanks, and STRATAGEM, among many others. Games that are both complex in their models and learning, and elegant in the simplicity of play (both are also computer supported.) I took my list above of components of a game and slightly adapted it from a workshop Dennis gave in 1998 about using games for learning. I am not sure he would completely agree with my assessment about Coconut Cracker’s merits, and my interpretation of the components. I took some poetic license – it was Mother’s Day after all!



Lizzie to Gillian: OK, I think we have everything we need for the retreat except the rope and the blindfolds…

Don’t get too excited, this is Gillian and Lizzie preparing for a 2-day organizational development retreat. We are going to play a communication game called “Islands” . We spent today finding planks, plywood sheets, beanbags, and bricks – more titilating details on how it went later…


The Sound of One Hand Clapping

At the end of a team building module, one of several in a leadership training course I used to give, we would often play a quick game called, “The Sound of One Hand Clapping”. You tell people that you will count to three and say “GO” and then they all should clap at the same time, in unison, so that everyone clapping together sounds like one hand clapping. You remind them that you will say “1, 2, 3, GO” and then they should clap. Then you proceed to say “1, 2, 3” and then you clap yourself. Then you say “GO”. Inevitably, people will clap when you clap, and not when you say “GO”. A couple of people always manage to wait for the GO word, but for the most part, people will follow your actions rather than your words. The message is that actions speak louder than words. They do and we all know it.

We use that game at the end of workshops because we want people to go home and, rather than tell everyone what they did, demostrate it through their actions. If it is leadership, then let’s see it. Talking about leadership is not enough. Great leaders can make great speeches, but great speeches don’t necessarily mean great leaders. When leadership is demonstrated, then we all clap!

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Activity Makeover Using Appreciative Inquiry: From STUPID to SMART

In the last few years I have become a devotee of Appreciative Inquiry, I think it is a useful, energizing frame for learning. However, in some cases, you need to redesign activities, their briefing and debriefing so it is consistent with this approach. It feels a bit like taking a very fattening recipe and making it into a Weight Watchers one – trying to change some of the ingredients so that you still get your delicious chocolate cake, but it is much better for you.

In our workshop this week we played a game called “Thumbwrestling”, which is an excellent game that demonstrates collaboration versus competition. In the end, most people fail, and the debriefing talks about how people aren’t stupid, but the system in which they are operating actually promotes stupid behaviour. In the game, people are given a very short amount of time to get as many points as they can from their “opponent”. They are instructed not to hurt anyone, and given a demonstration that looks like hand-to-hand conflict. The result is that they do the same and they get about 2 points, rather than the 30-40 points they can get when they collaborate. The debriefing question is:

What went wrong?

The answer you get from participants is a useful collection of things to watch out for in the system around you when you are trying to improve your interaction with colleagues. The answers that the participants give as they observe their behaviour in the activity can cleverly be written like this:

Small Goals
Time pressure
Untrusting Partners
Poor Example
Insufficient Vocabulary
Dysfunctional Norms

Now, if you wanted to convert this activity, make your low calorie cake, with an appreciative frame here is a potentially better question, and a way to organize participants’ answers that might give the same insight but not make them feel as foolish:

What would give us a better behaviour?

Sufficient Vocabulary
Major Goals
Appropriate Timeframe
Right Examples
Trusting Partners

You can makeover any recipe and have your delicious learning cake and eat it too. (bit corny sorry!)

No More Thinking Out of the Box: Games Can Get Your Further

I regularly read the Thiagi monthly Gameletter which promises “seriously fun activities for trainers, facilitators, performance consultants and managers”. (Lizzie and I went to one of Thiagi’s workshops in Switzerland last year and I am definitely a devotee of this unusual gamer and trainer.) This month’s gameletter focuses on debriefing games, jolts (blinding flashes of insight from intense experiences), and links to other players in this field.

One of these players is Brian Remer and his Firefly group. I have just enjoyed a 60 minute clickthrough journey into Brian’s world. His monthly newsletters, focused on performance improvements and games, are pared down sparks of inspiration (as he calls them). More than anything I notice that they aim to be immediately applicable, and short. This latter quality is critical in today’s megamarket of words and ideas, and something I am coming to value (and need to work on myself). Maximum idea in a small space. He has a series called Say it Quick which always only consists of 99 words, and he gives the ETR (estimated time to read) his newsletter as 5 minutes (although he gives the ETII – estimated time to implement ideas at 5 weeks – I guess this is how long it takes you to forget something completely if you don’t try it).

What sold me on this newsletter was the thoughtfulness of Brian’s gentle diatribe in the July Newsletter about why he would not go to a conference workshop called “Creativity: Thinking Outside the Box”. He worried about its novelty if it could not come up with a more inspiring analogy for breakthrough thinking. He added, “Besides, breaking out of a box is not very difficult. And when you’re free, you’re still in the same …room!”

Look into the gamers, they are not just doing icebreakers anymore. Great games can get you out of that box, and out of the room, and into a whole new world of learning.


Facilitator’s Notebook: Were You Listening?

The start of any workshop normally includes a tour-de-table where people introduce themselves and say a few words about their expectations and why they are there. If you are going around in a circle, you can figure out how long it will be until your turn. Then you calculate how many people you can actually listen to before you need to think about what you are going to say. At that point you tune out in order to come up with something that sounds interesting and intelligent, until after your turn. After your turn, you replay your intervention a few times in your head to convince yourself that it was a good contribution and made you look good. Then you tune in again. Out of the 20 or so participants, you ended up hearing about half or less.

As a facilitator what can you do to get people to register the interesting information about each other that will start to connect them at a personal level, allowing you to move the group towards more and more powerful, creative, potentially intense and exciting discussions? People need to feel comfortable with the other group members for that; it can be a bit risky in the group process sense. How can you catalyze that process?

There are of course many ways to do this. What we did last week, with a small group of people who will be working together for two years on a project at a distance, was to give them a team quiz.

No one said that you had to listen the first time, maybe some of them did not. However, the next morning after their introductions on Day 1, they received a pop quiz about the team to complete titled, “Were You Listening?” Match the person to their musical instrument (who played the bassoon, the piano, the guitar?) Who studied philosophy in university? Which two people do not speak Portuguese (because almost everyone else in this group does)? Who coined a well-known conservation term? Who started their career in the civil service? Ten multiple choice questions captured some of the interesting things about this new team, taken from the things that they had said about themselves in the previous day’s introductions.

If they did not pick it up the first time, then this was the second opportunity to absorb the information. And this time, going through the answers of the quiz and discussing them further, everyone was listening.


Facilitators’ Notebook: Using Powerful Questions

You might remember Gregory Stock’s “The Book of Questions” (1985) which was a small book of 200 short, provocative questions that you can think about yourself, or use at dinner parties or other social situations. I have used it in the past to create rather disruptive questions to ask participants in workshops on ethical decision-making, as the questions in this book deal with values, beliefs and life (in most cases they are a bit too strong for the workshop room, so adaptation is needed). But the notion of using purposeful, thoughtful, thought provoking questions to lead into a topic is an alternative to simply presenting the topic, or a statement and asking people to discuss it (where do you start and where does thi go?)

Here is a question sequence adapted from “The Book of Questions” that I have used in the past to get people thinking about ethics and values (today with my more asset-based thinking, I am not sure I would use this, but offer it as an example). First question: If you had a cockroach in your kitchen, would you kill it? Second question: If you had a butterfly in your kitchen would you kill it? Discussion: What is the difference between a butterfly and cockroach? Why does a beautiful creature merit more compassion than an ugly one? What values are we using here to drive our decision-making? Where do these values come from? etc (roughly adapted from Question 25) We could just give a lecture on ethical decision-making. However, people might be more personally involved in the topic when you start with questions like these.

I read recently about a new set of question cards that been produced for dinner parties, that sounds like the questions are a little less controversial but equally engaging. (If I can relocate the URL I will add it in comments.) You can look for other sources of good questions, or good stubs, or kinds of questions. You might never use the question the way it is originally stated, but it might give you ideas to adapt. You are looking for an unusual question, one that makes people stop and think deeply, get some energy out of it, and say, “Now that is a good question!”

Or you can have your group come up with the questions. After lunch energisers each day might be one of their own questions. For example, after the introductions at the beginning of the workshop, once everyone has given their biodata, ask the group to stop for a moment and think about what they heard, about the group, the things people have done, their goals and aspirations. Task them to each think up a thoughtful, thought-provoking question that they would be interested to ask the group that gets a vibrant discussion going. Maybe share a couple of examples. Then have them write them on a card and collect them (they can be anonymous if they want). Each day, or at intervals during your workshop, ask someone to pick a card and give the group 10 minutes to have a wonderful discussion using their own powerful questions.


What Can You Learn from a Card Trick?

Last week we went to a fantastic workshop on gaming given by one of the gurus in this field, Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan, whom we have mentioned before in a previous blog post (“Bingo!”) . His website on Improving Performance Playfully, is a wealth of free games, interactive training exercises and ideas for trainers and facilitators.

At one point in our workshop, we were taught a card trick. Well, actually we were taught two card tricks – one we were taught directly by Thiagi, and one we were taught by someone else (who had been taught by Thiagi).

What did we learn from a card trick? Well, there is an incredible difference between understanding how something is done and actually being able to do it yourself (let alone being able to teach it to someone else).

When Thiagi first did the card trick, many people could not immediately see the “trick” part. So he showed us the trick and then how to do it in detail. He then handed us each a pack of cards and instructed us to practice and in 5 minutes we would do it for someone else, and then show them how to do the trick.

Let me tell you, it is very hard to turn explicit knowledge (knowing how the trick works) into implicit knowledge (being able to actually do the trick). And it is even harder to then teach it to someone else (explaining it to make it explicit again.) And that was just a card trick, imagine if it was leadership or environmental management. It is not that it is impossible to do. But often when we teach or train, we leave people with explicit knowledge (knowing how the tool, methodology, practice works) and don’t go much further than that.

I came away from that exercise with one card trick that I can do acceptably well after lots of practice (at least to the delight of my 6 year old) and a much better appreciation of why watching someone use games will not necessarily make us better gamers, and reading all kinds of articles on leadership will not make us better leaders, and why saying “I know how that works” will not necessarily mean that I can actually do it myself.


Facilitators Notebook: “Experience in a Box” Application

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post (Experience in a Box) about an interesting kit of materials that could be used to help people move through their learning cycle, from “analysis” to “experimenting”, by building and simulating their ideas.

I used this on Thursday in our in-house Facilitator’s Training Course (Module 4: Working with Space and Context). Earlier in the session we had given our facilitators scenarios to use to practice their introductions – the contracting piece – when you introduce yourself to the participants, share your goals, and frame of the workshop/meeting. Later we used those same scenarios with the Combi box to physically “build” the workshop rooms where those scenarios would most effectively take place. As they built their spaces (with sticks, wooden blocks, game pieces, modelling clay, etc.) each team talked through the various reasons for a certain room set up – based on the meeting’s purpose, what they knew about the group, cultural considerations (given in the scenarios), etc.

We could have had general discussions in plenary about different kinds of room set-ups. However, that would have been passive learning for many, and perhaps too theoretical to be really useful. It would have been a few of us sharing our experiences, rather than strengthening the experience of others. The act of building the ideal workshop rooms in miniature with the materials allowed people to test different options together, talk about how one might work better than another, and make decisions, and then share the artifact of their discussion with the rest of us in a very short time.

This turned out to be an interactive, productive and fun exercise to give people more than just a notion, but some “experience” in setting up workshop spaces to contribute to their desired outcomes. Next step – moving those chairs for real! (Also, as a side note, not many of their final room set-up plans looked anything like those traditional ones in the image attached – they might have started that way, but in the process of their discussions their designs turned out to be much more innovative…)

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Experience in a Box?

This week we went to a meeting of a Swiss-based Knowledge Management Community of Practice called “Think Table”. This one-day gathering was packed full of games, experiences, discussions on topics such as storytelling (Story Guide: Building Bridges Using Narrative Techniques” prepared by the Swiss Development Cooperation-their webpage has many other related free documents to download), facilitation (our contribution), monitoring and evaluation for knowledge management, and “rapid prototyping”.

Rapid prototyping was a particularly interesting tool, and it fit in with our recent preoccupation with getting people at work to be thinking about their Learning Cycles. This tool presents an opportunity to go further with the experimenting/experience part of the cycle through actually building a process and then simulating and walking through the various steps, before documenting them more formally on paper after the experience.

Manfred Kunzel from the University of Fribourg presented the activity, asking four small teams to each construct the following scenario: “opening the door to sell black ThinkTables to schools in our community”. He gave us each half a box of supplies, small blocks, game pieces, sticks, post-it notes, other representational objects, and instructed us to build and then simulate the various seps in the process. After our initial “what?” reaction, we got to the task, and the discussion which followed helped us move through the essential stages of both project planning and execution (simplify the task, organization and set up, exploration and modelling, develop the plan, and execution). Apparently you can build any process in about 40 minutes, although then it can take several hours afterwards to formalise the process (map it, write down the steps, assign roles, etc.)

I have one of the boxes on my desk now, and already have plans to use it (you could probably create your own box). I thought it was a brilliant way to get people to think about something they want to do together, agree on it, build it, and then practice how the various stocks (money, people, ideas) flow around their system. It doesn’t replace real life, but sometimes you can’t practice building a bridge, or running a Congress of 10,000 people. At least this way you can create that environment on a much smaller scale and then run around in your simulated environment, saying what you would say, going where you would go, and seeing what kinds of things you might run into on the way.


Facilitator’s Notebook: Bingo!

I have not lost total faith in formal training or workshops as learning delivery tools; Jay Cross’ comments to the last blog post have also confirmed that every tool has its appropriate use (and every learner his/her own learning preference). I would also say that training has become less and less “formal” over the years. Good workshops now regularly have interactivity built in, with discussion techniques and games used to help participants find their own meaning through guided experiential learning.

This thought reminded me of an excellent resource for facilitators and trainers: the Thiagi Group’s website on “Improving Performance Playfully”. If you look under Free Resources there are many activities that can help take the formal out of training. Even lectures (if you have to have them) can be interactive; there is a list of 36 things you can do with lectures to make them more fun in the Interactive Lectures section. One of them is called “Bingo” – have a look!