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Object of play
Sometimes it can be difficult to keep a meeting on track when people have a hard time staying focused at the right level. People can find themselves “down in the weeds” or operational details when the meeting is supposed to be strategic, or, conversely, they can find themselves being too abstract and strategic when operational detail is exactly what’s needed. You can use Altitude to agree on expectations and keep people focused at the right level to serve the goals of the meeting.

Number of players
Any number of people can play this game.

Duration: 5 minutes.

How to play
1. Create a chart like the one shown below.

2. Give everyone a sheet of paper. Ask, “Who knows how to make a paper airplane? and ask for a show of hands. If there are people who don’t know how, either show them or ask someone at their table to do so. Now ask everyone to make a paper airplane. If time permits, you might offer them a chance to test their planes to make sure they fly.

3. Reveal the altitude chart, and ask the group to define what they mean by the satellite level, or the airplane level, and the ground level. For example, if people say that the satellite level is too high but the ground level is too detailed, ask them for examples of the kinds of things that they would consider at the right altitude. Then ask them for examples of things that would be too low or too high.

4. When you have reached some consensus on the right altitude level, put a mark on the page to represent the “right” altitude.

5. Now tell people that whenever they notice the conversation going too high (abstract, vague, strategic) or too low (down in the weeds, tactical, operational) they can float their airplane and that will be a signal to the group.

Meetings often go off track when someone pulls conversations into the wrong “altitude.” When this happens people often tune out, or even leave. In most meetings there is no simple, easy feedback mechanism people can use to keep the meeting on track. Giving people such a feedback mechanism (and making it fun) makes it easier for people to weigh in, keeping the meeting on track.

The Altitude game was created by Dave Gray

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Personal Kanban

Many thanks to Bensound for the excellent music and to Boardthing for the online whiteboard tool.

Object of play
Personal Kanban is a tool for organizing your work to be more efficient and productive.

Number of players
Any number of people can play this game.

Duration: 10-15 minutes.

How to play
1. Divide a whiteboard or sheet of paper into four columns: Backlog, Ready, Doing, and Done. Or you can use this template.

2. Using sticky notes, fill the “Backlog” column with all the work that needs to get done.

3. Move the highest priority jobs to the “Ready” column. Then rank the jobs in the “Ready” column, from highest to lowest priority.

4. Take the top one to three jobs from the “Ready” column and move them to the “Doing” column. These are the things that you will work on right away.

5. As you finish each job, move it to the “Done” column.

The key to understanding and using Personal Kanban effectively is understanding the nature of work. First, the importance of each job on your to-do list shifts over time, so you want to regularly re-prioritize your backlog, taking things off that are no longer important and moving important things to the top of the list (That’s your “Ready” column). Second, there are only so many things you can do well at any one point in time. So limiting the work-in-progress in your “Doing” column ensures you are not taking on too much and keeps you focused on getting things done.

Personal Kanban can be used by individuals or teams to make their work visible and transparent to customers and colleagues. This allows better group conversations about what is important and why. Another advantage is that kanban boards show what people are working on, so it can help teams gain a better understanding of their capacity, which can in turn help teams justify new hires when they are needed.

Personal Kanban was created by Jim Benson, based on kanban as used in Lean manufacturing.

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Hero’s Journey Agenda

Object of play
The Hero’s Journey Agenda is a unique and different way to lay out the agenda for a meeting or workshop that creates a sense of adventure and builds anticipation for the meeting.

Number of players
One, usually the facilitator, created live in front of a group.

Duration: 10-15 minutes.

How to play
I am going to give you a script here, based on the video above. But this exercise works best if you make it your own, using a story you love and that you feel your audience will be familiar with, like a favorite fairy tale or movie.

1. Draw a large circle on a whiteboard or flip chart. Tell people,

“This circle represents all the things we’re going to do today. We’re starting out up here (point to the top of the circle), and we’re going to take a hero’s journey.”

If you have geeks in the room, can actually talk about it in terms of Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings, or another story you expect the group to be familiar with.

You can also say,

“Any story, any epic adventure follows this basic format. This is something that a guy named Joseph Campbell came up with. He wrote a book called The Hero Of A Thousand Faces, which you can look up. Basically, the hero’s journey works like this. You begin in ordinary life. This is where everyone is coming into a meeting. We’re actually in our ordinary lives right now, and we’re going to do some special work and we’re going to be moving outside of ordinary life.”

2. Draw a stick figure at the top of the circle. Now say,

“The hero’s journey basically has two big components to it. There is the known world, which are the things that we kind of already know, the regular work and so forth. There’s the unknown, which are the things that we hope we will discover and explore during the course of this meeting.”

Draw a wavy line to represent the boundary between the known and unknown.

“This is called the threshold. It’s the threshold between the known and the unknown.

3. Now say,

“Here we are on the hero’s journey. The first thing in the hero’s journey is the call to adventure. That is where we talk about things like: What are we going to do? What’s the work that we’re going to do? Why is it important? What brings us to this point?”

Write “The Call” at around 1 o’clock on the circle, and talk about the purpose of the meeting. You may want to ask people why they came and what their expectations are.

4. Now draw a couple of stick figures at around 2 o’clock, and say,

“You’re going to find in the beginning of any story, you’re going to find the helpers and the mentors. You’ve got, whether it’s Dumbledore or Gandalf or Obi Wan, whoever that character is, the droids, the characters that are going to help you. These are the characters that are going to help you find your way.”

Helpers can be things like teaching people how to use sticky notes in a certain way. There are a lot of Gamestorming tools in this category. We call them openers. So you can tell people “We’re going to meet our helpers and mentors.” Those helpers might be tools, or people, experts that we might bring in. It could be a keynote speaker.

5. Next you will talk about crossing the threshold between the known and the unknown.

“Now, where we cross the threshold, that’s usually a good time for a coffee break. It’s the end of the morning, coffee or tea, depending on what country you’re in. Maybe both. We’re going to have a break.”

You can draw a coffee cup or a teacup here.

6. Now say,

“Next, we’re going to start getting into the trials and tribulations. We call this problems and pitfalls. It’s the part of the journey where you’re exploring the problem space.”

There may be all kinds of activities or things that you’re going to do here. You might be brainstorming, you might be working stuff out, might be drawing a map of the system. There are a bunch of things that you can do to explore this problem space. In a story, you’re going to find all kinds of challenges: you have to climb the mountain, you have to fight the trolls, all the things that have to happen to move the story forward.

Write the words “Problems and pitfalls,” and draw some explosions here, or barbed wire, or something representing problems and pitfalls, at 4 and 5 o’clock on your circle.

7. Now write the word “Pit” and draw a pit at the bottom of the circle. The pit, in a day long meeting, might be lunchtime.

“Every story has its pit. The belly of the whale, the cave. I just call this the pit. We’ve hit the bottom. This can be a tough space to be, because we’ve just opened up all these problem spaces and issues and things that we have to deal with. It may feel like we’re never going to get home. The pit is also the place here Bilbo Baggins finds the ring. It’s the place where the deep reflection, the real powerful learning can also happen. Over lunch might be a good time to explore what is down here in the pit. What are we feeling like? What are the emotions?”

8. Now write “Powers” and draw some stars, or a superhero stick figure with a cape, something that represents powers, around 7 or 8 o’clock, and say,

“We come out of the pit after lunch and we’re creating new powers. We’re solving problems. We’ve learned how to use the force. We’re now solving problems, we’re creating solutions, we’re working on things together. These kind of tools we might be using here would be customer experience map, service blueprint, we might be designing, we might be prototyping a product. This is where we’re actually getting cool results out of the meeting, but we still have to take that back to work.”

9. Now write “The return” at around 10 o’clock, and say,

“That’s part of the hero’s journey, too, the return to ordinary life. We have to go back and cross the threshold again. This time is all about those powers that you’re bringing back. We want to come back to the workplace with gifts. Think, new ideas, new thoughts. We want to spend some time thinking about, “How do we take this back to work?”

This is the part of the meeting where you make some time for the group to think together about how they are going to bring the new ideas from the meeting back into the organization. What am I going to do in my next meeting? How am I going to explain this to my team? You might actually work on the PowerPoint together or work on some documents that are about sharing what you actually did during the meeting.

10. At this point you can close the exercise by asking people if they have any thoughts and additions before you proceed with the meeting.

Here is an example of a completed agenda:

This is a very powerful way to set up an agenda for a relatively large scale session of work. Spend some time upfront on this. Draw it out and talk through it with key stakeholders, either before the meeting or at the beginning of the meeting. It is also a good litmus test to help you think through the goals of your meeting. If you can’t answer questions like, “What’s the call to adventure? What are the problems we want to explore? What are the things that we want to find? What are the things that we want to bring back to work?” and if you can’t sort of think these through at the beginning of a meeting, then it’s legitimate to ask yourself, should we really have this meeting?

The Hero’s Journey Agenda seems to work really well, not only for designing the agenda but for making sure you have all the major bases covered and creating positive energy and enthusiasm for the whole endeavor.

The Hero’s Journey Agenda was created by Dave Gray. It was inspired by The Hero’s Journey, popularized by Joseph Campbell, and the Pie Chart Agenda, which comes from James Macanufo, co-author of Gamestorming.

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Update to the Empathy Map

We designed the Empathy Map at XPLANE many years ago, as part of a human-centered design toolkit we call Gamestorming. This particular tool helps teams develop deep, shared understanding and empathy for other people. People use it to help them improve customer experience, to navigate organizational politics, to design better work environments, and a host of other things.

Why update it?
I have seen a lot of versions of the Empathy Map since we created it so many years ago, and they vary widely. The Empathy Map was created with a pretty specific set of ideas and is designed as a framework to complement an exercise in developing empathy. While the success of the Empathy Map is exciting and makes us very happy, a lot of the thinking has gotten lost in translation over the years, and the various versions that have proliferated across the web have somewhat degraded the original concept.

More recently, I worked with Alex Osterwalder, designer of the Business Model Canvas, to develop a new tool for mapping organizational culture called the Culture Map, and in that process I learned a lot about canvas design.

So I decided to create a new version of the Empathy Mapping Canvas, applying what I learned from Alex to make the tool more usable and to deliver better experiences and outcomes.

More information, including a list of what’s new and some facilitation guidelines.

Download the PDF.

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Empathy Map

Empathy map, originally uploaded by dgray_xplane.

The empathy map, one of XPLANE’s methods for understanding audiences, including users, customers, and other players in any business ecosystem, has gotten some press lately because it was featured in Alex Osterwalder‘s excellent book, Business Model Generation as a tool for discovering insights about customers.

Here’s how it works:

GOAL: The goal of the game is to gain a deeper level of understanding of a stakeholder in your business ecosystem, which may be a client, prospect, partner, etc., within a given context, such as a buying decision or an experience using a product or service. The exercise can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. You should be able to make a rough empathy map in about 20 minutes, provided you have a decent understanding of the person and context you want to map. Even if you don’t understand the stakeholder very well, the empathy-mapping exercise can help you identify gaps in your understanding and help you gain a deeper understanding of the things you don’t yet know.

1. Start by drawing a circle to represent the person and give the circle a name and some identifying information such as a job title. It helps if you can think of a real person who roughly fits the profile, so you can keep them in mind as you proceed. In keeping with the idea of a “profile” think of the circle as the profile of a person’s head and fill in some details. You might want to add eyes, mouth, nose, ears, and maybe glasses if appropriate or a hairstyle to differentiate the person from other profiles you might want to create. These simple details are not a frivolous addition — they will help you project yourself into the experience of that person, which is the point of the exercise.

2. Determine a question you have for that stakeholder. If you had a question you would want to ask them, or a situation in their life you want to understand, what would that be? You might want to understand a certain kind of buying decision, for example, in which case your question might be “Why should I buy X?”

3. Divide the circle into sections that represent aspects of that person’s sensory experience. What are they thinking, feeling, saying, doing, hearing? Label the appropriate sections on the image.

4. Now it’s time for you to practice the “empathy” portion of the exercise. As best you can, try to project yourself into that person’s experience and understand the context you want to explore. Then start to fill in the diagram with real, tangible, sensory experiences. If you are filling in the “hearing” section, for example, try to think of what the person might hear, and how they would hear it. In the “saying” section, try to write their thoughts as they would express them. Don’t put your words into their mouth — the point is to truly understand and empathize with their situation so you can design a better product, service or whatever.

5. Check yourself: Ask others to review your map, make suggestions, and add details or context. The more the person can identify with the actual stakeholder the better. Over time you will hone your ability to understand and empathize with others in your business ecosystem, which will help you improve your relationships and your results.

Download the Empathy Map Canvas.

Click here for photos of empathy-mapping in action.

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The long table

The Long Table is a dinner party structured by etiquette, where conversation is the only course. The project ingeniously combines theatricality and models for public engagement. It is at once a stylised appropriation and an open-ended, non-hierarchical format for participation. Both of these elements – theatrical craft and political commitment – are mutually supporting in this widely and internationally toured work. The (often-feminised) domestic realm here becomes a stage for public thought.

Learn more.

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Squiggle Birds

Squiggle birds is a quick exercise that you can use to get people stretching their visual thinking muscles. It takes about five minutes and quickly, clearly demonstrates how little effort is really required to make meaningful, easy-to-read images. The main point of the demonstration is that our minds are already pattern-making machines, and very little drawing is actually required to convey an idea. The mind will fill in the rest.

I learned this exercise from my friend Chris Glynn, a fine teacher who teaches fine things.

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Draw Toast


Object of play
You can use the Draw Toast exercise to introduce people to the concepts of visual thinking, working memory, mental models and/or systems thinking. This also works as a nice warm-up exercise to get people engaged with each other and thinking visually. Plus, it’s fun!

Number of players
Any number of people can play this game.

Duration: 10-15 minutes.

How to play
On paper or index cards, ask people to draw “How to make toast.”

After a couple of minutes, ask people to share their diagrams with each other and discuss the similarities and differences. Ask people to share any observations or insights they have about the various drawings. You are likely to hear comments about the relative simplicity or complexity of the drawings, whether they have people in them, how technical they are, how similar or different they are, and so on.

Depending on why you are doing the exercise you may want to point out the following:

  • Note that althought the drawings are all different, they are all fundamentally correct. There are many ways to visualize information and they all enrich understanding rather than being “right” or “wrong.”
  • Although the drawings are different in content, they tend to be similar in structure. That is, most drawings of mental models tend to contain three to seven elements, connected by lines or arrows.

    The main point of this exercise is to demonstrate the power of visual thinking to represent information.

    Visualizations of this kind tend to be easily understandable, although they are visually as rich and diverse as people. Pictures can be fundamentally correct even though they are quite different. There is no “one right type” of visualization.

    When people visualize a mental model, they usually will include 5-7 elements, linked together by lines or arrows. The number of elements tends to correspond to the number of things people can hold in their working memory, also known as short-term memory (See The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two for more information).

    This is also a nice warm-up exercise that is fun and gets people talking to each other.

    There is an excellent TED talk by Tom Wujec which you may want to watch in preparation. It may also be useful to show to the group in sessions as a way to share insights after the exercise. Tom also has a page with ideas for extending this exercise into group problem-solving which you can find at

    The Draw Toast exercise was created by Dave Gray