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Gamestorming for Distributed Teams

Gamestorming is an amazing way to improve the performance of teams. Unfortunately, Gamestorming doesn’t work too well when your team is distributed. In this guest post, written by Luke Hohmann (who also wrote the foreword to Gamestorming and his own nifty book, Innovation Games), Luke will describe some of the tools his company has created to enable distributed teams to gain the benefits of serious, collaborative play.

Framing the Games: Computer Supported Cooperative Work

Researchers in the field of Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) typically organize work as a grid in two dimensions. The first is time: either your doing work at the same time or at different times. The second is the physical structure of the participants: you’re either co-located, standing or sitting next to each other; or distributed, in different offices, buildings, or continents.

Here’s a sample picture. Happy gamestormers in the top left playing Prune the Future. The games described in our respective books occupy this quadrant as they are same-time, same place games. A Scrum team’s taskboard is shown in the lower left. In the lower right, we have a standard mailbox. And in the top right? Well now, that’s a problem for the our intrepid Gamestormer: you can’t easily put a sticky note or index card on your monitor and play games with other people.

But My Team Is Distributed!

Yup. The realities of the modern workforce means that you’re likely to be working in a distributed team. And while it is trivial to say that we’re working in an increasingly global set of team, it is not trivial to say that we’re working with a pretty crude set of tools to help us accomplish our goals. Unfortunately, that leaves people who want to Gamestorm in distributed teams with a lot of questions and not enough answers.

Consider, for example, this post that Dave and Luke wrote together. We agreed to write this together through a combination of email and tweets. Luke then wrote the first draft directly in WordPress. Dave edited this. And this cycle continued until we published it. According to the CSCW grid, we used  a different time/different place technology. And it worked well enough.

But what if we had wanted to work together on the same document at the same time? CSCW researchers have been working on this for quite some time. For example, in 1968 Doug Engelbart gave an amazing demonstration of shared, collaborative editing over a wide area network (see a great presentation on this, including cool videos, here). In the early 90’s researchers at the University of Michigan created ShrEdit, a shared (collaborative) document editing platform. A more recent example is EtherPad. These systems, and many others like them, provide excellent platforms for one kind of collaborative work – collaborative text editing.

Unfortunately, shared document editing is not the right kind of solution for distributed Gamestorming teams because each of the games has a unique set of goals, rules, and contexts. However, by understanding the kinds of collaborative goals that motivate Gamestorming, we can design a solution that meets their needs.

Visual Collaboration Games

Let’s focus on one class of Gamestorming games: Visual Collaboration Games. These are any game that:

  • leverage visual metaphors to serve as the “game board”, a guide to participants on the goals / objectives of the game, and a way to provide real-time feedback on the game;
  • use simple rules for structuring the placement “game tokens” (such as post-it notes), including how many tokens can be placed, the meaning of the tokens, and where and/or how the tokens can be placed.

This is an abstract definition, so let’s use two games to illustrate these concepts.

Empathy Map

Empathy Map

In this game, the visual metaphor is a stylized head that helps player develop a deeper, more empathetic, and more personal understanding of stakeholder’s experiences in a business ecosystem. The head is divided into sections based on aspects of that person’s sensory experiences, such as what they are thinking, feeling, saying, doing, and hearing.

Tokens are post-its or other artifacts that are placed on this visual metaphor represent the players best understanding of the person’s real, tangible, sensory experiences. For example, anything placed in the “hearing” section represents what that person might hear and how might hear it. While it is common to use Post-Its for this game, Luke has encouraged in-person players to add physical objects to the “empathy map game board” as a way to capture as much “empathy” as possible.

Prune the Product Tree (also known as Prune the Future)

Empathy Map

In this game, the visual metaphor of a tree is used to represent traditional product and/or service roadmaps. The evolutionary growth of the product or service is captured in the tree, with branches representing broad product capabilities or areas of service, and apples and leaves representing discrete roadmap items. Trees can be identified via various growth areas – “sooner” and “later” or “this year” or “next year”. The physical metaphor of pruning a tree to ensure healthy growth enables players to “prune” unnecessary features from a product or offers from a service portfolio.

No End In Sight To Visual Collaboration

Visual Collaboration Games are one of the most powerful classes of games that exist. And the supply of these games is inexhaustible: every visual image that we use in business can serve as the foundation of a visual collaboration game. Some examples:

Disappointed that your favorite game isn’t listed? Don’t be. While we’re trying to collect all of the games that we can into the Gamestorming wiki, the reality is that if you’re a good gamestormer or Innovation Gamer, you’re going to be inventing visual games as needed for special circumstances. And once you play them in-person, chances are pretty good that you’ll want to play them online.

Sounds Great! I Want To Play ONLINE Right Now!

Empathy MapExcellent! We were hoping you’d say that! Here is another image of the Empathy Map. But this one is special – clicking on this image will start an “instant play” game at www.innovationgames.com. In this game, there will be three icons that you can drag on your online Empathy Map:

  • Smiley Faces: Use smiley faces to indicate what would make your persona happy.
  • Grim Faces: Use grim faces to indicate what would make your persona concerned.
  • Frowns: Use frown faces to indicate what would make your persona unhappy.

Keep in mind that that this is a collaborative game. This means that you can invite other players to play. And when they drag something around – you’ll see it in real time!

Playing Visual Collaboration Games

The benefits of playing in-person, co-located visual collaboration games are considerable. The visual metaphor guides the group in solving a critical problem. You have a shared artifact that captures key aspects of your collective understanding. The results of the game play can be used and shared with others. And many times you don’t have to tell the participants that they’re playing a game, which can be important when introducing serious games to organizations who might be resistant to change. Players can just smile and compliment themselves on having a good time solving a problem.

And now, the power of online games means that we can use the same visual metaphors to enable distributed teams to solve complex problems. We can add semantics to the images so that we know where items are placed. The system acts as a perfect Observer, silently recording every event, so that we can analyze the results of multiple game plays with many distributed teams. And the flexibility of online, visual collaboration means that we’re only limited by what we want to try.

We’re going to be adding more instant play, online collaborative games to the Gamestorming wiki over the next few weeks.

To learn more about how to convert any Doodle or image into an online, collaborative game, read this post.

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TEDx Austin – Lo Tech Social Network (p. 105 of Gamestorming)

As many of you know, TEDx events have sprung up all over the world. Planning the bigger events takes a lot of time and effort from volunteers who are serious about “ideas worth spreading.” I’m one of those volunteers, having been on the production team for TEDx Austin since its inception. The team was very supportive of our book, Gamestorming, when it was released and we used the next group meeting as an opportunity to demonstrate the value of the visual-thinking activities within. What you see above is an artifact from a recent meeting with some of the best design, marketing and UX firms in Austin. It was a creative brainstorm designed to put the “hive mind” together to see how we can make the 2011 event better and bolder than last year’s (which was very well done, in large part to Nancy Giordano‘s solid mind and infectious enthusiasm). I’d love to be able to show the other visual artifacts from the meeting, alas, that content is intended to be a surprise for the audience.

Some tips for running the Lo Tech Social Network game (on p. 105 of the book): This game is an opener and it really contributes to warming up groups that otherwise may be slow to wake up or timid about contributing, particularly if they’re in a group of their professional peers. (Note: If the people are strangers who have never heard of each other, this game won’t work. At least 1/2 of the participants need to have some knowledge of the others.) Position your white space by a food-and-drink area so the participants can loiter and make connections while they (sometimes awkwardly) stand around before the meeting begins. You can have written instructions on a flip chart next to the space they’re playing in, but it’s also good to have a visual example already in the white space (at least two sticky notes connected by a line that says how the people are connected) and you’ll find that people deduce what to do. And of course you can have a facilitator placed near the area to give people the rules of the game and supply them with markers and sticky notes. Lo Tech Social Network gets fun fast and it alleviates the desire to run the old “My-name-is _______ and-one-thing-people-don’t-know-about-me-is _______” snoozer. This is a faster way to accomplish the same goal and to actually show how small the world can be. And if you want to make the game less formal, start off the visual example by writing a comment like, “we have the same taste in women” or “we went to the same nudist colony.” If you’ve got a tight-knit group already, let them be goofy. It makes it a funnier experience.

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Plus/Delta

Object of Play
The object of this game is to generate constructive feedback.

Number of Players: Any

Duration of Play: 10–45 minutes

How to Play
Make two columns: one for “plus” and one for “delta” (the Greek symbol for change).

1. Ask the group to reflect on what was positive or repeatable about an activity and capture their thoughts under the “plus” column.

2. Ask the group then to brainstorm about what they would change about it, and capture these under the “delta” column.

Strategy
This feedback method can apply to any activity, idea, work product, or action. By focusing on change as opposed to direct negatives, the group will be more likely to share its true assessment while also generating improvement ideas.

The earliest known use of the Plus/Delta game is at The Boeing Co circa 1980.

Online Plus/Delta

Plus/DeltaHere is another image of the Plus/Delta Game. But this one is special – clicking on this image, will start an “instant play” game at innovationgames.com. In this game, there will be two icons that you can drag on your online Plus/Delta Chart:

  • Pluses: Use these to capture positives.
  • Deltas: Use to capture what you’d like to change.

We’ve organized this game into three regions: High Impact, Medium Impact, and Low Impact. As you’re placing these items, use these regions to help you keep track of the most important ideas.

Keep in mind that that this is a collaborative game. This means that you can invite other players to play. And when they drag something around – you’ll see it in real time!

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WhoDo

WHODO exercise

Object of Play
The objective of this game is to identify stakeholders and clarify goals.

Number of Players: 1–10

Duration of Play: 20–45 minutes

How to Play
Who do you want to do what? Almost any endeavor of substantial impact requires seeking help from others. Developing a WHO + DO list is a simple way to scope out the undertaking.

1. Start with the vision. Write out or visualize the big goal.

2. Draw a two-column matrix and write “WHO” on the left and “DO” on the right.

3. Ask: Who is involved in making this happen? Who is the decision maker? Who has needed resources? Who may be an obstacle? Whose support is needed These individuals or groups are your list of WHOs.

4. The DOs are often harder. For each WHO, ask: What do they need to do, or do differently? What actions will build toward the big goal? Sharpen each WHO in the list until you have a desired and measurable action for each. Given all of the possible WHOs and DOs, which are the most important? Who comes first?

Strategy
Bias yourself toward action. When brainstorming DOs, there is a tendency to slip into the easier mode of “we just want them to understand.” Most often when you want people to understand something, it’s because you want them to change something or learn something that they can then “DO.” Ask yourself, or the group, “What will happen once they understand?” Don’t shortchange what you are really looking for: action. A natural follow-on to this activity is to make an Empathy Map of the WHOs.

The WhoDo game is credited to Dave Gray.

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Storyboard



VTS, originally uploaded by dgray_xplane.

Object of Play
This game asks players to envision and describe an ideal future in sequence using words and pictures. Storyboarding as a technique is so versatile that it can be used to show any topic, not just an ideal future. But it is particularly powerful as a visioning exercise since it allows players to imagine and create possibilities. The players tell a story with a happy ending, planting tiny seeds for a different future. You can also use storyboarding to let employees describe their experience on a project, to show approaches to solving a problem, or to orient new employees on policies and procedures—its uses are limited only by the imagination.

Number of Players: 8–20

Duration of Play: 45 minutes to 1.5 hours

How to Play
Before the meeting, determine the topic around which the players will craft their “ideal” story. Once the meeting starts, divide the group into pairs or groups of three or four, depending on the size of the group. Provide markers, pads of flip-chart paper, and stands.

1. Tell the players that the purpose of this game is to tell the other players a feel-good story. The topic of the story is “The Ideal Future for [blank]”—for a team, a product, the company, whatever you decided beforehand. The players’ assignment is to visually describe the topic and narrate it to the group.

2. After the groups are established, give them 20–25 minutes to (1) agree on an ideal state, (2) determine what steps they would take to get there, and (3) draw each step as a sequence of large images or scenes, one per sheet of flip-chart paper.

3. Give the players a two-minute time warning, and once the time is up, bring them back together. Ask for volunteers to tell the story first.

4. After all the groups have presented, ask them what’s inspiring in what they heard. Summarize any recurring themes and ask for observations, insights, and “aha’s” about the stories.

Visualization
Alternative: Have individuals draw their storyboard images on large stickies.

Strategy
As the leader of this game, be sensitive to the fact that many of the meeting participants will freak when you tell them that large-scale drawing is involved. Reassure them that the story is the point of the exercise and that the images play a supporting role. They can use words as captions to clarify the images and they can also select the “artist” within their group so that not everyone has to put marker to paper. (But it’s more fun for those who do.) Finally, remind them that they aren’t allotted sufficient time to create a da Vinci anyway, so stick figures work perfectly well.

For the presentation format, there are various options. Breakout groups can post each sheet of flip-chart paper in a row around the room and walk along the row as they tell the story. They can also leave the flip-chart pad intact and flip the pages over the stand as they narrate. They could choose to hang the sheets in rows and cover them, using one group member to act as a “Vanna White” and create a series of voilà moments. Tell them to have fun with it—they won’t be graded on their stories (although you could make it a contest if it’s that kind of crowd). The process of creating and sharing the stories is what matters.

Walt Disney is credited for this activity. His need to animate Steamboat Willie in 1928 led to the process of storyboarding—a story told in sequence on a wall covered with a special kind of board. He found it to be an effective way to track progress and improve a story.

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Post-Up

Post-up, originally uploaded by dgray_xplane.

Object of Play
The goal of this game is to generate ideas with silent sticky note writing.

Number of Players: 1–50

Duration of Play: 10 minutes to 1 hour

How to Play
There are many ways to work with ideas using sticky notes. Generating ideas is the most basic play, and it starts with a question that your group will be brainstorming answers to. For example: “What are possible uses for Product X?” Write the question or topic on a whiteboard. Ask the group to brainstorm answers individually, silently writing their ideas on separate sticky notes. The silence lets people think without interruption, and putting items on separate notes ensures that they can later be shuffled and sorted as distinct thoughts. After a set amount of time, ask the members of the group to stick their notes to the whiteboard and quickly present them. If anyone’s items inspire others to write more, they can stick those up on the wall too, after everyone has presented.

Harry Brignall at the 90% of Everything blog makes a great suggestion:

When doing a post-up activity with sticky notes in a workshop, you may want to use the FOG method: mark each note with F (fact), O (opinion) or G (guess). It’s such a simple thing to do, but it adds a great deal of clarity to the decision-making process.

Strategy
Generating ideas is an opening activity, and a first step. From here you can create an Affinity Map or further organize and prioritize the thoughts, for example using Forced Ranking.

The Post-Up game is based on the exercises in Rapid Problem-Solving with Post-it® Notes
by David Straker.

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Forced Ranking

Geneva workshop

Object of Play
When prioritizing, a group may need to agree on a single, ranked list of items. Forced ranking obligates the group to make difficult decisions, and each item is ranked relative to the others. This is an important step in making decisions on items like investments, business priorities, and features or requirements—wherever a clear, prioritized list is needed.

Number of Players: Small group of 3–10 participants

Duration of Play: Medium to long; 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on the length of the list, the criteria, and the size of the group

How to Play
To set up the game, participants need to have two things: an unranked list of items and the criteria for ranking them. Because forced ranking makes the group judge items closely, the criteria should be as clear as possible. For example, in ranking features for a product, the criteria might be “Most important features for User X.” In the case of developing business priorities, the criteria might be “Most potential impact over the next year.”

If there are multiple dimensions to a ranking, it is best to rank the items separately for each criterion, and then combine the scores to determine the final ranking. It is difficult for participants to weigh more than one criterion at a time, as in the confusing “Most potential impact over the next year and least amount of effort over the next six months.”

In this case, it would be best to rank items twice: once by impact and once by effort. Although there is no hard limit on the number of items to be ranked, in a small-group setting the ideal length of a list is about 10 items. This allows participants to judge items relative to one another without becoming overwhelming. By making the entire list visible on a flip chart or whiteboard, participants will have an easier time ranking a larger list.

To play, create a matrix of items and the criteria. Each participant ranks the items by assigning it a number, with the most important item being #1, the second most important item as #2, and so forth, to the least important item. Because the ranking is “forced,” no items can receive equal weight.

Once the items have been ranked, tally them and discuss the prioritized list and next steps.

Strategy
Creating a forced ranking may be difficult for participants, as it requires they make clear-cut assessments about a set of items. In many cases, this is not the normal mode of operation for groups, where it is easier to add items to lists to string together agreement and support. Getting people to make these assessments, guided by clear criteria, is the entire point of forced ranking.

The original source of the Forced Ranking game is unknown.

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Dot Voting

Dot Voting by @benry

Object of Play
In any good brainstorming session, there will come a time when there are too many good ideas, too many concepts, and too many possibilities to proceed. When this time has come, dot voting is one of the simplest ways to prioritize and converge upon an agreed solution.

Number of Players: At least 3 participants; in larger groups, tallying votes will be more time-consuming

Duration of Play: Short


How to Play
First, the group needs a set of things to vote on! This may be something they have just developed, such as a wall of sticky notes, or it may be a flip-chart list that captures the ideas in one place. Ask the group to cast their votes by placing a dot next to the items they feel the most strongly about. They may use stickers or markers to do this. As a rule of thumb, giving each participant five votes to cast works well.

Participants cast their votes all at once and they may vote more than once for a single item if they feel strongly about it. Once all the votes are cast, tally them, and if necessary make a list of the items by their new rank.

This prioritized list becomes the subject of discussion and decision making. In some cases, it may be useful to reflect on ideas that didn’t receive votes to verify that they haven’t been left behind without cause.

Strategy
This technique is used to collaboratively prioritize any set of items. It could be used to hone a list of features, to agree on discussion topics, or to choose among strategies and concepts. Giving participants five votes is enough to be meaningful while still asking for individual prioritization; however, this is not a hard rule.

The original source of the Dot Voting game is unknown.

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Card Sort

Grouping

Object of Play
Card sorting is a practice used frequently by information architects and designers to gather and structure inputs for a variety of purposes. In a common use of card sorting, information for a website is put onto the cards, and the sorting helps create categories for navigation and the overall architecture. The method works just as well for creating slides for presentations, or at any point where information needs to be sorted and organized in a sensible way.

The applications of card sorting are numerous, and in use it works similarly to Post-Up and affinity mapping. Card sorting can differ from these methods, however. First, the cards are generally prepared in advance, although participants should be allowed to create their own while sorting. Second, the cards are a semi-permanent artifact and can be used as a control over several exercises with different participants to find patterns among them.

Number of Players: Small groups or individuals

Duration of Play: 30 minutes or more, depending on the number of cards and participants

How to Play
Use 3×5 index cards or similar. For a typical sorting exercise, aim for 30–100 cards in total; more than this range will likely overwhelm the participants, and fewer may not be meaningful enough to be worth the effort. On each card should be a succinct bit of information; enough to tell the participants what it is and no more. Putting too much information on a card will slow down the sorting; not enough will cause confusion and will slow down the process even more.

Give the group the shuffled deck and a stack of blank cards. Describe the overall organization challenge, and ask them to sort the cards into groups that go together. If they think something is unclear or missing, they may alter a card or create a new one. Once they have created the groups, ask them to name them and describe them.

There are variations of sorting—including asking the group to rank the items from most to least desirable or to organize the cards into two categories such as “must have” and “nice to have.” You may also ask the group to sort cards into a predefined set of categories, to test their validity.

Strategy
Although the Card Sort game won’t tell you everything you need to know about a set of information, it will help reveal the thought process of participants. In this sense, it’s more about people than information. Only after a number of sorting exercises with a number of groups will larger patterns appear.

Card sorting is a common practice of information architects and designers of complex systems. Its actual source is unknown.

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Bodystorming

Bodystorming the future of news

Object of Play
Bodystorming is simply brainstorming, but done with the body. It may look different depending on the preparations and location, but in the end all bodystorming is fundamentally about one thing: getting people to figure things out by trying things out. A group may explore one of the techniques described below to get their feet wet with bodystorming. They may move through them in order, from observing and learning to ideation and prototyping, although this is not a strict sequence. Each level of bodystorming will help break the pattern of analyzing ideas around a conference table and get people closer to developing things that will work in the real world.

How to Play
Bodystorming takes place in three phases.

Level 1: Go Observe
Go to the location to do your work. If you are developing an idea for a coffee shop, or a shopping mall, or a hospital, go there and do your work as you would normally. The environment will present idea cues and authentic information that would never emerge from conference room brainstorming. For example, say a group is charged with improving the student experience on a college campus. Although they may conduct interviews or other research, they may start by
going to a few campus locations and “blending in” with the surroundings while going about their usual work. It’s important that the group not zero in on any specific analysis so that they will be open to the cues that the environment presents.

Level 2: Try It Out
Use role play and props to develop an idea. In this exercise, a group physically “acts out” an experience by using whatever they have on hand or can acquire. The group focuses on how they interact with each other, their surroundings, and makeshift artifacts, testing existing ideas and uncovering new ones. For example, say a small group is asked to “reimagine the evening news.” Using each other as the actors, the audience, the news anchors, and the television itself, they improvise a script that plays out the experience as they conceive it could be.

1. Identify and assign critical roles. For any experience, identifying the “customer” or “user” role is a good way to get started. This participant (or group of participants) becomes the focal point and main character of the bodystorm. Other critical roles will present themselves. “Who wants to be the Internet?” is not an uncommon question to hear.

2. Improvise the experience. Bodystorming is physical and progressive: as the group starts to put their thoughts into action, they will naturally ask simple and important questions by acting them out, often leading to the unexpected. For example, in the evening news scenario:

“OK, so how do you watch the evening news?”
“I don’t have a television. Also, I’m usually out jogging.”
“Oh. Do you have your phone on you?”
“Always. I’m listening to music.”
“OK, what if this happened… who wants to play the phone?”

In a completely improvised scenario, the group should keep in mind the principal rule of the game: building on each other’s inputs. “Yes, and…” will generate
more progress than “Yeah, but…” thinking. In some uses of bodystorming, a group will act out a script prepared in advance. In these cases, an equal amount of planning in props to build an environment is key. For example, if it’s a coffee shop, set up the counter and chairs. If it’s a park or outdoor area, strongly consider going there.

The BetaCup Bodystorming Session – Overlap 09 from the betacup on Vimeo.

Level 3: Reflect on What Happens, and Why
By enacting the experience, the participants will naturally explore new possibilities, and uncover flaws or assumptions about how an idea could work. This is valuable both in the process itself and afterward: by documenting the exercise on video, the participants may later “watch the reel” to discuss key points.

Strategy
Choose the right level of bodystorming at the right time for the group. Because bodystorming asks participants to take a big step away from the typical conference table mode of thinking, they may need to get comfortable with more structured sessions first, armed with scripts and specific roles, before stepping into complete improv. In all cases, the exercise itself will be more memorable than the customary problem-solving session, and will help generate empathy that comes from “embodying” the experience.

The term “bodystorming” was coined by Colin Burns at CHI ’94 In Boston, Massachusetts.