Posted on

Meeting games

Meeting games, originally uploaded by dgray_xplane.

Games are not a new thing at work. In nearly every office environment games are in evidence. Be assured: you are part of a game whether you know it or not. Games are going on all around you and most of the time the rules are unclear, unspoken or unknown.

Whether or not you choose to explicitly bring knowledge games into your workplace, a better understanding of games and game mechanics can help you be happier and more productive at work. We can call this game literacy: An understanding of what games are, how they work, and how they shape our environment.

A game is a socially constructed world where the rules of ordinary life are suspended in favor of a set of rules that the game-players have explicitly or tacitly accepted. Every organization has both written and unwritten rules, and you need to play by both sets of rules if you want to be successful in that organization. The problem with ambiguous or unwritten rules is that people easily become confused, disoriented and sometimes disenfranchised. They check out.

Here are some of the games we have observed in work environments:

I agree with the boss more than you do: Players compete to show the most enthusiasm for the ideas or suggestions of the most powerful person in the room. Moves in this game include loud, conspicuous or unnecessary expressions of agreement or enthusiasm, as well as disparaging comments about alternative positions or perspectives. The winner is the one who curries the most favor with the boss, or gets the boss to appoint him or her to a coveted position or project.

Let’s pretend we all get along: In this game, meetings are somewhat farcical ceremonies where nothing of serious importance is discussed or decided. The real issues are resolved outside the meeting space and the real decision-makers may not even attend the meeting. The meeting leader may be in a position where he or she pretends to have a discussion about a topic, but has no real authority to change anything. Moves in this game can include changing the subject, soft-pedaling difficult questions, and shifting blame to a higher authority or “the system.” The goal of this game is to continue the play without anyone challenging the status quo.

The definition game: Players use language as a game element. The goals of this game can vary widely, from productive to destructive to simply play for the enjoyment of the game. In the definition game, the discussion is paused as players work to find language or semantic issues that can change, derail, or delay the game. One mode of play is to drag the other players into endless discussion and delay the real issues of the meeting. Another mode is where players work to define language such that they can appear to agree when in fact they disagree – a version of “let’s agree to disagree” without making the conflict explicit. This mode is a version of “Let’s all pretend we get along.” The definition game is not always negative. It can be useful when a meeting involves people from different disciplines or different cultures. The goal in that case is to truly understand what is meant by a term that’s in play.

Saboteur: This game is only fun if everybody in the meeting is not in on the game. The goal of the game is to subvert the real meeting in order to nurture a grudge, or for the amusement of the players. Moves in Saboteur are wide and varied. They can be anything from body language, like yawning, crossing the arms and rolling the eyes, to killing any new idea through ridicule or discussing similar ideas that failed. Other moves are pretending you don’t understand in order to impede the meeting’s progress, or taking advantage of a backchannel like Twitter or IM to comment disparagingly on the conversation. A key strategy in Saboteur is to wait until others have staked out a position and then move in for the kill. The goal of Saboteur is to stop or delay any serious progress or change.

King of the hill: Players compete to demonstrate their alpha status within the group. This can be a version of “I agree with the boss more than you do” when players are competing for the boss’s approval, although this is not always the point of “King of the hill.” The goal of this game is to assert your dominance and to get others to show signs of submission. Moves in the game can be anything from an unnecessarily strong handshake to taking the seat at the head of the table.

I’m too busy for this: Players attend a meeting but at the earliest opportunity delve into unrelated work, often by opening their laptops. This is a form of “checking out” but can also be a signal of disinterest or a play for dominance; sometimes it can be a version of “King of the hill.” One very recognizable move in this game is the player who ducks out of the meeting to take an “important call.”

Filibuster: Filibuster is a game about air time. Players angle for center stage and enter into lengthy monologues to promote an agenda or point of view that is only tangentially related to the meeting. Moves may include the introduction of technical jargon to prove one’s expertise, lengthy explanations of unrelated topics, or raising issues from other domains to get them the widest possible audience. Filibuster may also be a play for attention for its own sake. The goal of the game is to keep the center stage for as long as possible.

Here’s why you all should like this: This game is played by authority figures in hierarchical organizations who want to discourage conversation about difficult topics. Decisions are presented to a group and a pretend “discussion” ensues. Controversial decisions are “spun” or presented as “good news” and any discussion of the controversial aspects is discouraged. Moves include “We’ve already discussed that” and body language like that seen in Saboteur. The goal of the game is to maintain the appearance of consensus without changing any of the decisions. One version of this game is “Let’s all agree with me” where a power- player continually raises the same “suggestion” until all disagreement evaporates. One sign that this game may be underway is when managers do most of the talking and frontline workers are noticeably silent.

Sock puppet: Players try to increase their status or the importance of a point by claiming to speak for a constituency that isn’t present. They may represent this point of view as coming from others but more often than not it is their own. Moves include terms like “I’ve heard,” “People are saying” and so on. A key strategy in this game is to refuse to identify one’s sources in order to protect them from retribution. A player wins when the other players agree to the validity of their point.

Shell game: The goal of this game is to postpone meetings and decisions indefinitely. In this game, meetings are moved all over the calendar to accommodate everyone’s schedule, or decisions are postponed because everyone wasn’t able to attend. Difficult topics are “punted” into the next meeting. Players avoid making decisions until everyone agrees, and attempt to keep as many issues unresolved as possible. This can be a version of “Let’s all pretend we get along.”

I’m sure it’s clear by now that these kinds of games go on all the time, in nearly every organization. Players are not even necessarily conscious of their roles as players in a game, and yet they play anyway, sometimes out of boredom and sometimes out of habit. The point here is not that “game-playing” is a negative thing in work environments, but that games are a natural activity; they are part of the social construct and part of how work gets done. And like any other practice, they can be constructive or destructive.

Knowledge games are a way of bringing structure and clarity to the work environment. They make the game – and the rules of the game – explicit, so everybody knows what game they are playing and why. When people understand and agree to the rules, they can put themselves more fully into the game. A knowledge game creates a safe place for people to explore new and sometimes uncomfortable ideas. They are more engaged in their work, they collaborate better, they contribute more, and a better work product is the result.

Posted on

Why knowledge games work


The way humans gain the lion’s share of what we know is through a slow process of gathering informational knowledge – accumulated layers of additive information based on years of exposure and experience. For example, my knowledge of Spanish is informational knowledge. I learned it through years of listening to Spanish speakers and eventually formalized it by taking multiple semesters at university, building up bits of knowledge to get a fairly complete understanding of the language. And along this learning path, I had an anticipated outcome – fluency. I would eventually know enough verbs, conjugations, vocabulary, etc. to present myself as a Spanish speaker. But nowhere along that learning curve did I create something rather than just accumulate it. Spanish was already there; it was just a matter of me methodically crawling through it, adding to my increasingly large pile of information.

And this is how most of us approach problem-solving – by applying informational knowledge. We think of a problem (or perhaps create one!), get a sense of its magnitude, reference relevant information we know and then apply it as a solution. And there are many situations in which this is a perfectly appropriate plan of attack: you see someone choking in a restaurant, you hurriedly scan your knowledge from the past, you perform the Heimlich. Brilliant. But the shadow side to this type of problem solving is that it confines you to the boundaries of the smaller pieces of the pie chart above – the realm of what you know and the realm of what you know that you don’t know. So if you know the Heimlich (even half-assed), you try it. And if you know that you don’t know the Heimlich, you’re likely going to seek out someone who does and ask them to solve the problem. But it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to spontaneously invent a new move and liberate a choking gentleman from his hambone. That’s just not the way informational knowledge works. And if you impress yourself by actually inventing a new anti-choking technique, well, surprise. You’ve just entered the realm of transformational knowledge.

Transformational knowledge is knowledge that can seem to appear out of the ether. It emerges almost as a flash – a eureka moment – and appears most often when we’re either under duress or in a child-like state of learning.  But since most of us eschew being “child-like” – we do take ourselves rather seriously – rarely do we get access to the biggest piece of the pie chart. We spend almost all of our time vacillating between the two dinky realms of either ‘what we know’ or ‘what we know that we don’t know.’  So it’s not shocking that when we’re tackling problems – business or personal – we find our way to the same results. How innovative can we really be when we’re treading and retreading the same ground? But don’t misunderstand; we’re not at fault – we can hardly be held responsible for what we don’t know that we don’t know. But we can be responsible for actively trying to get access to that space. To that big, mysterious piece of the pie that’s hoarding almost all of the creative solutions.

Knowledge games, as set forth in our book, are powerful because they’re designed to help us move out of the familiar and predictable and into the uncertain and unknown – where creation actually lives. We’re including games and meeting processes in which the rules aren’t rigid, you can veer away from a directed outcome and you’ll often be surprised at how it all turns out. We’re giving you tools to create, not repackage. And this is important because, as Einstein understood, “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”


Note: This post was inspired by Landmark Education, a forum that applies the notions of informational vs. transformational knowledge in the areas of human consciousness and performance.
Posted on

What is a knowledge game?

What is a knowledge game?, originally uploaded by dgray_xplane.

Games and play are not the same thing.

Imagine a boy playing with a ball. He kicks the ball against a wall, and the ball bounces back to him. He stops the ball with his foot, and kicks the ball again. By engaging in this kind of play, the boy learns to associate certain movements of his body with the movements of the ball in space. We could call this associative play.

Now imagine that the boy is waiting for a friend. The friend appears, and the two boys begin to walk down a sidewalk together, kicking the ball back and forth as they go. Now the play has gained a social dimension; one boy’s actions suggest a response, and vice versa. You could think of this form of play as a kind of improvised conversation, where the two boys engage each other using the ball as a medium. This kind of play has no clear beginning or end: rather, it flows seamlessly from one state into another. We could call this streaming play.

Now imagine that the boys come to a small park, and that they become bored simply kicking the ball back and forth. One boy says to the other, “Let’s take turns trying to hit that tree. You have to kick the ball from behind this line.” The boy draws a line by dragging his heel through the dirt. “We’ll take turns kicking the ball. Each time you hit the tree you get a point. First one to five wins.” The other boy agrees and they begin to play. Now the play has become a game; a fundamentally different kind of play.

What makes a game different? We can break down this very simple game into some basic components that separate it from other kinds of play.

Game space: To enter into a game is to enter another kind of space, where the rules of ordinary life are temporarily suspended and replaced with the rules of the game space. In effect, a game creates an alternative world, a model world. To enter a game space, the players must agree to abide by the rules of that space, and they must enter willingly. It’s not a game if people are forced to play. This agreement among the players to temporarily suspend reality creates a safe place where the players can engage in behavior that might be risky, uncomfortable or even rude in their normal lives. By agreeing to a set of rules (stay behind the line, take turns kicking the ball, and so on), the two boys enter a shared world. Without that agreement the game would not be possible.

Boundaries: A game has boundaries in time and space. There is a time when a game begins – when the players enter the game space – and a time when they leave the game space, ending the game. The game space can be paused or activated by agreement of the players. We can imagine that the players agree to pause the game for lunch, or so one of them can go to the bathroom. The game will usually have a spatial boundary, outside of which the rules do not apply. Imagine, for example, that spectators gather to observe the kicking contest. It’s easy to see that they could not insert themselves between a player and the tree, or distract the players, without spoiling, or at least, changing, the game.

Rules for interaction: Within the game space, players agree to abide by rules that define the way the game-world operates. The game rules define the constraints of the game space, just as physical laws, like gravity, constrain the real world. According to the rules of the game world, a boy could no more kick the ball from the wrong side of the line than he could make a ball fall up. Of course he could do this, but not without violating the game space – something we call “cheating.”

Artifacts: Most games employ physical artifacts; objects that hold information about the game, either intrinsically or in their position. The ball and the tree in our game are such objects. When the ball hits the tree a point is scored. That’s information. Artifacts can be used to track progress and maintain a picture of the game’s current state. We can easily imagine, for example, that as each point is scored the boys place a stone on the ground, to help them keep track of the score – another kind of information artifact. The players are also artifacts in the sense that their position can hold information about the state of a game. Compare the position of players on a sporting field to the pieces on a chess board.

Goal: Players must have a way to know when the game is over; an end state that they are all striving to attain, that is understood and agreed to by all players. Sometimes a game can be timed, as in many sports, such as football. In our case, a goal is met every time a player hits the tree with the ball, and the game ends when the first player reaches five points.

We can find these familiar elements in any game, whether it be chess, tennis, poker or ring-around-the rosie. On reflection, you will see that every game is a world which evolves in stages, as follows: Imagine the world, create the world, enter the world, explore the world, leave the world.


1. Imagine the world. Before the game can begin you must imagine a possible world. The world is a temporary space, within which players can explore any set of ideas or possibilities.

2. Create the world. A game world is formed by giving it boundaries, rules, and artifacts. Boundaries are the spatial and temporal boundaries of the world; its beginning and end, and its edges; Rules are the laws that govern the world; and artifacts are the things that populate the world.

3. Enter the world. A game world can only be entered by agreement among the players. To agree, they must understand the game’s boundaries, rules and artifacts; what they represent, how they operate, and so on.

4. Explore the world. Goals are the animating force that drives exploration; they provide a necessary tension between the initial condition of the world and some desired state. Goals can be defined in advance or by the players within the context of the game. Once players have entered the world they can try to realize their goals within the constraints of the game-world’s system. They can interact with artifacts, test ideas, try out various strategies, and adapt to changing conditions as the game progresses, in their drive to achieve their goals.

5. Leave the world. A game is finished when the game’s goals have been met. Although achieving a goal gives the players a sense of gratification and accomplishment, the goal is not really the point of the game so much as a kind of marker to ceremonially close the game space. The point of the game is the play itself, the exploration of an imaginary space that happens during the play, and the insights that come from that exploration.

Imagine the world, create the world, enter the world, explore the world, and leave the world.

A knowledge game is a game-world created specifically to explore and examine business challenges, to improve collaboration, and generate novel insights about the way the world works and what kinds of possibilities we might find there. Game worlds are alternative realities, parallel universes that we can create and explore, limited only by our imagination. A game can be carefully designed in advance, or put together in an instant, with found materials. A game can take 15 minutes or several days to complete. The number of possible games, like the number of possible worlds, is infinite. By imagining, creating and exploring possible worlds, you open the door to breakthrough thinking and real innovation.

We are writing a book about knowledge games. What games are you practicing in your workplace? What kinds of experiences have you had? Please leave a comment and share them with us!

Posted on

Boundary matrix

Creating a boundary matrix, originally uploaded by dgray_xplane.

Boundary object is a term from sociology used to describe something that helps two disciplines exchange ideas and information, even when their languages and methods may be very different. Today I was in a call with a couple of colleagues, Lou Rosenfeld and Marko Hurst, who were describing a problem that’s very familiar to many of us — the problem of communicating and sharing work between disciplines that are very different. In the case that we were discussing today, one discipline was data analytics, which is very quantitative in nature, very data-driven, in contrast to the other, user experience design, which is primarily quantitative, design-driven. The problem is that the two disciplines think of their work very differently and use different language and tools to approach their work. In a paper titled Languages of Innovation, researchers Alan Blackwell and David Good identify the language problem involved in transferring knowledge from the academic world to industry:

“One might imagine the university as a reservoir of knowledge, perhaps contained within books and the heads of individual academics, from which portions of knowledge can be poured out into the heads of recipients outside the university walls. But which of the available languages might this knowledge be expressed in, and how might it be translated into the languages current in business, industry, government and public service each of which have their own lingua franca? Scholarship does not exist in any form independent of language, so the transfer of scholarly knowledge either takes place in the disciplinary language in which it was formulated, or must be translated.”

This is the challenge many organizations have in conveying information between disciplines, and Blackwell and Good have some very constructive insights in their paper, which I encourage you to read. The ideas in that paper, and the subsequent conversation with two colleagues about some very real problems they were having translating information between “data people” and “design people” resulted in the idea of the boundary matrix. Here’s how it works:

1. First, identify what information needs to be exchanged between the disciplines:

(a) determine what kinds of questions discipline X must ask to get relevant and meaningful information from discipline Y, and

(b) determine what kind of form the answer to the question from discipline X might take, if answered by someone from discipline Y. This could be a document or artifact that is ready and available, or it might involve terms that are specific to discipline Y. For example, a designer who wanted to understand user behavior might need to ask for search terms and click-through rates.

(c) repeat the above from the perspective of discipline Y.

2. From examining these exchanges you should be able to create two lists, one for discipline X and one for discipline Y. Each list element contains a brief description of the discipline-specific term and why it should be important to the other discipline. For example user behavior > search terms, click-through rates.

In the sketch above, these descriptions are labeled A, B, C, D for discipline X and 1, 2, 3, 4 for discipline Y.

3. Now look at your matrix and see if you can find how each cell relates to an area of strategic interest for your company or team. These interior cells represent the points where the disciplines intersect with larger areas of shared interest. If you can’t find the strategic connection that might indicate that the activity might have outlived its usefulness or could be of dubious value to the organization.

The completed chart is your boundary matrix — a “cheat sheet” for managers as well as people from disciplines X and Y, that will allow them to communicate more effectively and quickly navigate to areas of strategic priority or shared interest. This is a new idea and has yet to be tested but I think it holds real promise.

I suspect that the initial value to cross-disciplinary teams will be the conversations it forces about what each discipline does and why it is important to the other discipline, or the organization as a whole. The conversations themselves are an education and culture-building process that will lead to better collaboration, and the better those conversations, the better the boundary matrix that will result.

Posted on

Quaker Conversation

The collaboratory

It’s very easy for the dynamics of a group to undermine the potential value of bringing a group of people together. If the same people speak every time, there is always a contingent whose voices are not heard; in creative work, a perspective lost can mean valuable ideas are never heard and “group think” can set in. Getting the greatest diversity of ideas from a group can depend on making the space for as many viewpoints up front before the flow of conversation begins its process of natural selection, and conversation is a funny thing; setting a few rules can disrupt the habitual dynamic of the group to allow for different outcomes.

OBJECT of the GAME: To give all voices a chance to be represented in a group with a potentially wide range of perspectives.


The rules of the game are quite simple…

  1. Begin by posing a question to the group
  2. Each person answers the question in sequence – usually going around the circle, but if someone is not ready, they can defer their turn until later.
  3. Each person answers as fully as they need to in order to feel they’ve fully expressed their point of view.
  4. No one should respond to, rebut or rejoin the comments of others; each response should be only to the original question

Point number four can be a difficult one for many groups, but if gently enforced, it can really encourage the less vocal members of any group to voice their opinions. This can lead quite well into a follow-on conversation if someone has been recording some of the ideas or perspectives on a whiteboard. Using these elements as launching points allows for a more focused drill down on the ideas that may have resonated with the group.

Posted on

Show Me Your Values

NAME OF PLAY: Value Tease
Object of Play:
To unearth employee perception of the deep values that underly an organization, an initiative, a system-wide change, or any other topic.
# of Players: 5 – 10
Duration of Play: 30 minutes
How to Play:
Before the meeting, decide the topic around which you want players to share stories. Set-up a flat surface area in which you can write and they can post their images. Write the name of the topic in this area.
Provide the players with tape and several magazines of all genres—enough magazines for each player to rifle through three or four.
Tell the players that the goal of the exercise is twofold: First, they’ll describe in pictures what they perceive to be the values underlying the topic. Second, they’ll share a work-related story that’s indicative of those values. (Example: an image of a turtle may represent patience and longevity, so the player may share an anecdote in which an attractive but high-risk project was not pursued.)
Give everyone 10 minutes to cutout one or more images that represent their perception of the underlying values.
Ask them to tape their image(s) in the designated area and then quietly reflect on a story associated with the value(s) they represented.
Ask for volunteers to take turns sharing both their images and their associated story.
Pay attention as the players describe the values they perceive and write them in the space beside the appropriate image.
Go over the values you captured and ask the players to look for overlaps and gaps in their perception. Ask follow-up questions about the content and stories to generate further conversation. Let the group absorb and discuss the perceptions they share as well as those they don’t.

NAME OF PLAY: Show Me Your Values

Object of Play: To understand employee perception of the values that underly an organization, an initiative, a system-wide change, or any other topic.

# of Players: 5 – 10

Duration of Play: 30-45 minutes

How to Play:

  1. Before the meeting, decide the topic around which you want players to share stories. Set-up a flat surface area in which you can write and they can post their images. Write the name of the topic in this area.
  2. Provide the players with tape and several magazines of all genres—enough magazines for each player to rifle through three or four.
  3. Tell the players that the goal of the exercise is twofold: First, they’ll describe in pictures what they perceive to be the values underlying the topic. Second, they’ll share a work-related story that’s indicative of those values. (Example: an image of a turtle may represent patience and longevity, so the player may share an anecdote in which an attractive but high-risk project was not pursued.)
  4. Give everyone 10 minutes to cutout one or more images that represent their perception of the underlying values.
  5. Ask them to tape their image(s) in the designated area and then quietly reflect on a story associated with the value(s) they represented.
  6. Ask for volunteers to take turns sharing both their images and their associated story.
  7. Pay attention as the players describe the values they perceive and write them in the space beside the appropriate image.
  8. Go over the values you captured and ask the players to look for overlaps and gaps in their perception. Ask follow-up questions about the content and stories to generate further conversation. Let the group absorb and discuss the perceptions they share as well as those they don’t.



A notable benefit of using pictures to elicit values statements and stories is that imagery is simultaneously one step removed from a straight, verbal declaration yet one step deeper than what you may get when you ask players to share their “intellectual” thoughts. And using pictures gives the players a sort of comfort zone to express themselves, since they can choose pictures that represent the whole spectrum of comedy and tragedy around a topic. So if someone prefers truth through humor, they can find images that allow them to use it. And if someone else prefers truth through hyperbole, well, they have that option too.

As the group lead, realize that some players will think immediately of a value representing a topic and go hunting through the magazines until they find a suitable representation. Others will surf the images, looking for something that resonates with a vague notion they have in their minds. Either approach is suitable and you can discuss these approaches when you set up the play.

Most importantly when you introduce the game, encourage people to share the values they perceive as honestly as they can. Tell them that it’s okay to believe that an underlying organizational value is territoriality and to represent that with an image of a lion. Not only is this behavior appropriate, but it’s also desirable—since beliefs that drive behavior often go unstated in public but are repeated and spread through huddles within the organization. And as people share stories, if someone is having trouble thinking of a story to match their image, give them more time (or let them bow out completely) and let someone else offer a story. Often people will have stories triggered based on anecdotes that others share.

Finally, let people be creative with the storytelling section of the play. If two or more participants want to share a story together, encourage them to do so. They can even go so far as to role play an event that unfolded. Your job is to create a space in which people can say something that may be taboo but that everyone is thinking.

Fun, optional activity: Ask the players to cutout images that represent what the values are NOT. So if a player believes expediency is NOT one of the values around a project,  she may choose the aforementioned turtle as a representative image.

Posted on

“Design games” by Donna Spencer

Information Architect and Interaction Designer Donna Spencer practices knowledge games as part of her work. She calls them design games, which she describes as having these four essential characteristics:

1. They are fun, involving play to promote creativity.

2. They are hands-on, about making ideas real, not just talking about them.

3. They are useful, as opposed to the dreaded team-building exercise.

4. They are structured: they have goals and are planned so the goal is met.

Here’s a list of Donna’s design games:

The 4 C’s is a game that breaks down a problem into four quadrants: Components, Characteristics, Challenges and Characters.

Card sorting is a method for breaking down information into modular units and organizing the units into groups and subgroups.

Design slam is a way to quickly generate design ideas, and improve team dynamics, by breaking a group into small design teams.

Design the box is a game for thinking through features and benefits of any product or service. Design the homepage is a variation on “Design the box” to identify features and design ideas for a website or web application.

Divide the dollar is a game for apportioning features or resources based on value. It has some similar dynamics to Aaron Williamson’s Scenario Slider.

Freelisting is a method for quickly generating lists on a topic or category.

Idea Cards is a game for generating new thinking. It reminds me of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies card deck, which is also now available as an excellent iPhone app.

Reverse it! is a game that asks teams to solve the opposite problem as a way to finding novel solutions.

Role play is a way to work through and experience scenarios.

Scavenger hunt is a game for exploring the usability of a system or web site, where people are given a list of features or other elements to find in a limited time.

Here’s the full list of Donna’s games, with descriptions and a link to the site for more information.

What do you think? Have you tried any of these games, or something similar? What kinds of game-like practices have you employed in your work?

Posted on

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.

Posted on

Scenario Slider


After coming up with great ideas, the next challenge is figuring out the best way to make them happen. This exercise is one of many types of “scenario” games which can be used to test ideas and try out different approaches to bring them to life.

When having discussions about how to do something, we often get overwhelmed by all of the variables and reasons why it might not work, and can end up working in circles questioning our assumptions before we’ve even tested the idea. Setting stakes in the ground can clear the space we need to get down to it and discuss how to try something new under more specific circumstances…and doing it across groups helps to think through very different ways of doing the same thing.

OBJECT of the GAME: To get groups to model a business approach based on several extreme scenarios, using two to three variables.

WHEN to USE: After a brainstorming or prioritization exercise where a new idea, model, business or product has been selected.


  1. In advance, select two or three variables which would impact how your idea would be implemented. If it’s a project, it could be “money, people and time”.
  2. It’s helpful to set some context for your variables. Money could range from $10k to unlimited funds, for example, while time might be “done in 3 months” to “as much time as you need”.
  3. Set two or three different scenarios, adjusting the “sliders” in your three variables to a couple of possible extremes. Don’t be worried if this is actually the case in reality; playing with the extremes helps to find unexpected answers. One scenario might be “unlimited funds, all the people you need, must be done in three months.”
  4. Working with a number of groups in parallel, assign one scenario to each group. Ask the groups to come up with an approach based on that scenario. Instruct the groups to take the scenario as a given – don’t say it’s impossible in three months; tell us how you’d do it.
  5. Allow the groups to all share their work with the others, outlining their approach as well as explaining the tradeoffs and shortcomings based on the constraints of their scenario.
  6. Debrief as a large group to identify ideas that people agree should go forward, and which variables and constraints the group believes to be non-negotiable.

FACILITATOR NOTES: Getting the groups to produce something for the report out helps them crystallize their thinking and gives the broader group a something tangible to work with when debriefing. Getting them to draw models or doodles to illustrate their ideas can help get them focused on delivering a product.