Posted on

Help Me Understand

Object of Play

Help Me Understand is based on the underlying (and accurate) assumption is that employees come to meetings with widely different questions around a topic or a change.It assumes leadership can anticipate some questions and concerns but can’t possibly anticipate them all. No one knows the questions employees have better than the employees themselves, so this game gives them a chance to externalize what’s on their minds and have leadership be responsive in a setting outside the once-a-year leadership retreat. It also allows the players to discover overlaps with other players’ questions and to notice the frequency with which those questions occur—something they may not have known prior to the meeting. It lets some sunshine in around a project, initiative, or change so that employees—who have to implement that change—have fewer lingering questions.

Number of Players


Duration of Play

30 minutes to 1.5 hours

How to Play

  1. In a large white space visible to all the players, write the topic of the meeting and the following words as headers across the top: “WHO?”, “WHAT?”, “WHEN?”,“WHERE?”, and “HOW?”. Give all players access to sticky notes and markers.
  2. Tell the players that the goal of the game is to help leadership understand and be responsive to any and all questions around the topic.
  3. Start with the question “WHO?” and give the players five minutes to silently write down as many questions as they can that begin with the word WHO.
  4. Ask the players to post all of their questions in the white space under WHO? and then ask for a couple of volunteers to cluster the questions according to topical similarity.
  5. Bring the largest clusters to the group’s attention—circle them if you prefer—and ask leadership to offer a response to the most common questions in the clusters and to any outlier questions that look interesting.
  6. Repeat this process for the remaining four header questions, each time asking leadership to respond to the questions that seem the most salient to the group.
  7. When the meeting closes, gather all of the questions so that leadership has the opportunity to review them later and respond to important questions that weren’t covered during the meeting.


As the group leader, you can conduct this game in different ways. One way is to ask the five questions back to back, with the players creating sticky notes for all five questions—WHO?, WHAT?, WHEN?, WHERE?, and HOW?—and then posting and clustering them during the first half of the meeting. After they’ve completed that part of the game, the players ask leadership to address the major clusters during the second half of the meeting. Another approach is to let leadership intersperse responses while the players tackle the header questions one at a time. There are benefits to both approaches.

The first approach allows the players to write questions uninterrupted by content from and reactions to leadership. It also allows leadership to save some time since they only technically need to attend the second half of the session. The second approach breaks up the flow a bit but will inevitably affect the types of questions the players ask since they’re getting information from leadership as they go. Choose what’s appropriate based on your knowledge of the group.

During the clustering part of the game, you may want to write emergent themes near each cluster to give leadership summaries of where their employees’ attention is. This is also helpful for the players to reinforce that they have shared concerns. The themes should be one- to three-word phrases summarizing the general content of the clusters. And as the meeting leader, encourage employees to make the most of this game since it presents an unusual opportunity for them to pose real, substantive questions directly to their company leaders.

This game is an adaptation of WHO WHAT WHEN WHERE and HOW from The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making by Sam Kaner. In his book, Kamen notes that his use of this tool was inspired by an exercise called “Five W’s and H” in Techniques of Structured Problem Solving, Second Edition, by A. B. Van Gundy, Jr., p. 46.

Posted on

Give-And-Take Matrix

Object of Play

The goal of this game is to map out the motivations and interactions among actors in a system. The actors in this case may be as small-scale as individuals who need to work together to accomplish a task, or as large-scale as organizations brought together for a long-term purpose. A give-and-take matrix is a useful diagnostic tool, and helps players explore how value flows through the group.

Number of Players

Small group

Duration of Play

1 hour or more

How to Play

To begin, you will need a list of all the actors in the system. This may be prepared in advance or generated at the start of the exercise.

Using the list, create a matrix with the list of actors along both the horizontal and vertical axes.

Each cell in the matrix captures only one direction of the flow. For example, a supplier may give a certain value to a manufacturer, but a manufacturer will give a different value to the supplier. For consistency, the vertical axis can be considered the “from” and the horizontal axis the “to.”

  • Primary motivations: For each actor in the matrix, fill in “what they want” out of the system. This information goes along the diagonal, where the individual actors intersect with themselves. These should be brief phrases that describe a goal or reason the actor participates in the system.
  • Intersecting interests: The next step is to look at the intersections, and capture what value flows between the actors. Start with a single actor and work through each cell, asking “What can I offer you?”

For some intersection points, this will be easier to describe. In other cases, the matrix will expose previously unconnected actors and possibly those at odds with each other. The goal in completing the matrix is to find the most complete picture of how each actor can benefit all the others.


Completing this matrix may involve research both before and after the initial mapping process. By using surveys or interviews, players may be able to explore and validate both the initial inputs and the intersecting interests.

Along with stakeholder analysis and boundary mapping, the Give-and-Take Matrix helps players explore and define the actors and interactions within a system.

The Give-and-Take Matrix is inspired by a number of techniques used in engineering, chemistry,and design.

Posted on

Build The Checklist

Object of Play

In all work of reasonable complexity, there is a moment-to-moment risk that equally important tasks will overwhelm the human mind. In knowledge work this may be doubly true, due to the intangible “fuzziness” of any particular task. For groups that are charting out how they will work one of the most practical and useful things they can do is build a checklist.

Although creating a checklist may seem like an open-and-shut exercise, often it uncovers a manifest of issues. Because a checklist is a focusing object, it demands that the team discuss the order and importance of certain tasks. Team members are likely to have different perspectives on these things, and the checklist is a means to bring these issues to the surface and work with them.

Number of Players

A small team that has deep experience with the task at hand

Duration of Play

1 hour or more, depending on the task to be analyzed

How to Play

It’s most useful to create the checklist in order of operation, from first to last, but in some cases a ranked or prioritized list is more appropriate. Consider which the group would benefit more from creating.

  1. To begin, introduce to the group the topic at hand: “You will be creating a checklist for doing [fill in the blank].” It may be useful to prime the group into thinking about a particular situation or duration of time, as in “Getting from A to B” or “Dealing with an Angry Customer.”
  2. Have the group brainstorm tasks to put on the checklist using sticky notes. Guide the group to create items that are concrete and measurable, like a switch that is turned on or off. For example, “assess arrival readiness” is not as useful as “deploy landing gear.”
  3. Once the group has generated a pool of ideas, they may use Post-Up and affinity mapping to remove duplicate tasks. In discussing what has been added to the list, two things may be done:


  • Have the group order the tasks into a procedure. Use sticky notes so that the individual tasks can be moved. Given a space with a beginning and an end, the group can discuss and debate the ordering while creating the list in real time.
  • Have the group force-rank the tasks. In this case, the group must decide the order of importance of the tasks. By doing this, the group may be able to agree to cut items from the bottom of the list, making their checklist shorter and more direct.

In all cases, the discussion and reflection that come out of the initial brainstorming will be where the most progress is made. It is likely that new ideas will surface and be added to the checklist in the discussion. Coming out of the discussion the group’s next step is to capture the checklist as an artifact and share it with others who can test it and improve it.

The Build the Checklist game is credited to James Macanufo.


Posted on

The Blind Side

Object of Play

Every human being has blind spots and every company does, too. Knowledge openness can enhance businesses and relationships while knowledge blindness can make things unnecessarily more difficult. In other words, what we don’t know can hurt us. The military refers to this as “the fog of war.” The premise of this game, therefore, is to disclose and discover unknown information that can impact organizational and group success in any area of the company—management, planning, team performance, and so forth.

Number of Players


Duration of Play

30–45 minutes

How to Play

  1. Before the meeting, decide on a topic for discussion. Draw a large-scale profile of a person and draw four arrows coming out of the top of the head. Label those arrows “Know/Know”, “Know/Don’t Know”, “Don’t Know/Know”, and “Don’t Know/Don’t Know”.
  2. Give the players access to sticky notes and markers and tell them that the purpose of this game is to try to make explicit the knowledge they have, and the knowledge they don’t have but could use.
  3. Start with the Know/Know category. Elicit from the group all information about the topic that they know they know. This category should go quickly and should gener- ate a lot of content. Ask the players to write one bit of knowledge per sticky note and cluster them near the arrow pertaining to that category. (They’ll do this for each category.)
  4. Next, tackle Know/Don’t Know. This category will go less quickly than the first but should still generate plenty of content. Again, ask them to cluster the sticky notes near the related arrow.
  5. Move to Don’t Know/Know. This information could be skills people have that are currently not used to solve problems or untapped resources that have been forgotten.
  6. Last, move to Don’t Know/Don’t Know. The group will be stopped here, possibly indefinitely. This category is where discovery and shared exploration take place. Ask the players provocative questions: What does this team know that your team doesn’t know it doesn’t know? How can you find out what you don’t know you don’t know?
  7. Ask the group what they can do to proactively address the distinct challenges of each category. Discuss insights and “aha’s”. Even if the players’ only revelation is that they have blind spots, this in itself can be a fruitful discovery.


This game works best with a familiar team when the participants cross disciplines and responsibilities. Having a diverse group enhances the feedback loop for the Don’t Know categories, which are where the players are going to get stuck. They’ll be confident about what they know—and even about what they know they don’t know—but without an outside perspective, it’s next to impossible to declare what we don’t know we don’t know. The nature of this question warrants discussion and the solicitation of others’ observations.

Because this game has an obvious trust-building component, start by sharing easy information and move toward more substantive information depending on the players’ comfort level. Keep the group on business- or project-related topics and away from personal evaluations. Although The Blind Side can be used as a psychological assessment, the self-help applications of this game should be conducted outside the business setting, unless you’re dealing with the rare group that’s into that.

The Blind Side is inspired by and adapted from the Johari Window, a communication model developed by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham.

Posted on


Object of Play

There is a time to go deep. Just as in science, breaking large structures into their base components is fundamental to knowledge work. It is how we create understanding and formulate new ideas.

This exercise starts with a single item and ends with a layer-by-layer analysis of its components. It is useful for unpacking large but poorly understood structures. Although the applications are numerous, some structures that are well suited for atomization include:

• A firm’s offering

• A technology platform

• An enterprise-wide initiative

• A supply or demand chain

• A group’s culture or other “intangible”

By breaking the larger system into its components, the group will have an advantage in problem solving or brainstorming. Because they are more discreet and tangible, the smaller components are more easily handled and better understood. Likewise, the overall map that is created will help serve as an explanation of the overall system.

Number of Players

Small groups

Duration of Play

1 hour or more

How to Play

  1. Open the exercise by putting the name of the system on a sticky note at the top of a large whiteboard. Introduce the exercise as a way to understand what the system is made of in tangible terms, by breaking it down into its “atoms.”
  2. To start the brainstorming, ask the group to “split” the main system into its components. In this step you are generating a list of things to capture on sticky notes directly below the main topic. Generally, a short list of three to five large components is the norm.
  3. For each item, repeat the splitting process by asking “What combines to create this?” In this manner, you will build a pyramid of components all the way down.
  4. The map and individual components that result may be used as inputs into other activities, or may be documented as an explanation of a system’s parts.


At some point, usually four to five levels deep, there is a natural turning point. Instead of becoming more diverse, the items start to become more fundamental. This is the atomic level, and where some of the most interesting results are found. In exploring a group’s culture, this is where hidden attitudes and behaviors unique to the group may be discovered. In atomizing a service offering or product, this is where elementary characteristics and differentiation points may live.

The Atomize game is credited to James Macanufo.

Posted on

The 5 Whys

Object of Play

Many of the games in this book are about seeing the bigger picture or relating a problem to its context. The 5 Whys game mirrors that motive to move beyond the surface of a problem and discover the root cause, because problems are tackled more sustainably when they’re addressed at the source.

Number of Players


How to Play

1. Prior to the meeting, establish a problem your team needs to evaluate. Write the problem in an area visible to all the group members, and if you’d like, draw something that represents it.

2. Distribute sticky notes to each player and ask them to number five of them 1 through 5.

3. Ask the players to review the problem statement and ask themselves WHY it’s a problem. Then ask them to write their first response on sticky note 1.

4. Tell the players to ask themselves WHY the answer on sticky note 1 is true and write their next response on sticky note 2.

5. Again, tell the players to ask themselves WHY the answer on sticky note 2 is true and write the response on sticky note 3.

6. Repeat this process in numerical order until every numbered sticky note has a response written on it.

7. Below the problem statement, write the word “Why?” five times in a column and draw lines to create columns for each player’s set of notes. Ask the players to approach the wall and post their responses, starting with 1 at the top and ending with 5 on the bottom.

8. Review the “Why” columns with the group and note commonalities and differences.

Allow for discussion.


Rewrite the problem statement on a sheet of flip-chart paper. Then give a volunteer five clean sticky notes to write on, and work with the group to build consensus on which of the five “Whys” in the columns offer the most meaningful insight into the problem. Ask the volunteer to rewrite the “Whys”—one per sticky note—as the group agrees on them.  Once they’re all written, tape the five index cards into a final column under the problem statement. If you have time, move into a discussion around “what’s next.”


This game is about reading more between the lines—about understanding the root cause of a problem so that people can get the greatest leverage out of solving it. When leading this game, encourage the players to be honest. This is the single most important strategy.

If the players avoid the issues, the game doesn’t yield good information. And in a worstcase scenario, you could have people actually addressing the wrong problems. So, as the meeting leader, be aware of the dynamics between the players and foster open conversation around the difficult question of “why”.

Another important practice is to ask the players to write the first thing that comes to mind each time they ask “Why?”. If they jump immediately to the perceived root of the problem, they may miss the opportunity to see the stages, which are valuable to know for problem solving at different levels.

Finally, many problems require more or less interrogation to get to the root. Ask “Why?” until you feel the group is really getting somewhere. Five Whys is a healthy place to start, but don’t interpret it as a fixed number. Build longer WHY columns if necessary, and keep going until you get the players to meaningful insights.

The 5 Whys game is based on a game by Sakichi Toyoda.

Posted on 5 Comments



Object of Play

Often in projects, the learning is all at the wrong end. Usually after things have already gone horribly wrong or off-track, members of the team gather in a “postmortem” to sagely reflect on what bad assumptions and courses of action added up to disaster. What makes this doubly unfortunate is that those same team members, somewhere in their collective experience, may have seen it coming.

A pre-mortem is a way to open a space in a project at its inception to directly address its risks. Unlike a more formal risk analysis, the pre-mortem asks team members to directly tap into their experience and intuition, at a time when it is needed most, and is potentially the most useful.

Number of Players

Any, but typically small teams will have the most open dialogue

Duration of Play

Depends on the scope of an effort; allow up to five minutes for each participant

How to Play

A pre-mortem is best conducted at the project’s kickoff, with all key team members present and after the goals and plan have been laid out and understood. The exercise starts with a simple question: “What will go wrong?” though it may be elevated in phrasing to “How will this end in disaster?”

This is an opportunity for the team to reflect on their collective experience and directlyname risks or elephants lurking in the room. It’s a chance to voice concerns that mightotherwise go unaddressed until it’s too late. A simple discussion may be enough to surfacethese items among a small team; in a larger group, Post-Up or list generation maybe needed.

To close the exercise, the list of concerns and risks may be ranked or voted on to determine priority. The group then decides what actions need to be taken to address these risks; they may bring these up as a part of ongoing meetings as the project progresses.


Conducting a pre-mortem is deceptively simple. At the beginning of a project, the forward momentum and enthusiasm are often at their highest; these conditions do not naturally lend themselves to sharing notions of failure. By conducting a pre-mortem, a group deliberately creates a space to share their past learning, at a time when they can best act on it.

The source of  the Pre-Mortem game is unknown. It’s similar, and related to, the Innovation Game: “Remember the Future” designed by Luke Hohmann.

Posted on 3 Comments

Mission Impossible

Geneva workshop

Object of Play

To truly create something new, we must challenge constraints. In this exercise, participants take an existing design, process, or idea and change one foundational aspect that makes it “impossible” in function or feasibility. For example:

• “How do we build a house…in a day?”

• “How do we create a mobile device…with no battery?”

• “What would a browser be…without an Internet connection?”

Number of Players

Small groups

Duration of Play

45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size of the group

How to Play

When a problem is interesting and important, we naturally rise to the occasion. To set up the exercise, develop a question in advance that engages both the emotional and the rational parts of the brain. A mobile device without batteries would be an engineering feat (rational) and a make-the-world-better proposition (emotional). Write this question for the group and explain the challenge.

For the next 30 minutes, working in pairs or small teams, the groups develop approaches to accomplishing the “impossible.” They may consider these broad questions or develop a set that is more specific to the challenge:

• What new benefits or features might emerge from this constraint?

• Why is this a typical constraint or requirement? Is it just a customary assumption?

• What are the core elements in conflict?

• Can the conflicting elements be eliminated, replaced, or altered in some way?

• Is there anything that can happen before or after to change the parts in conflict?

• Can time, space, materials, motion, or the environment have an effect?

At the end of the 30 minutes, groups present their concepts to each other. Following this, a reflective discussion about both common and uncommon approaches should yield a list of possible solutions to be explored further. Closing and next steps should include this follow-up work.


This challenge works well for thinking through assumptions and obstacles in a product or a process. When a product is languishing and needs to be re imagined, this technique will help challenge basic assumptions about its design. In cases where processes are slow or overloaded, the “fire drill” question of “How would we do this in a day?” can be a powerful framing device.

The Mission Impossible game is credited to James Macanufo.

Posted on

Forced Analogy


Object of Play

We understand things by grouping them with other things of similar type and function.  An airplane is similar to a helicopter; they’re both flying things. Both are more similar to a bird, which is also a flying thing, than any of those things are to an earthworm, which is a crawling and tunneling thing. The Forced Analogy game breaks these hard-wired categories and allows us to see things from a different angle, opening new possibilities in problem solving and idea generation.

Number of Players


Duration of Play

15 minutes to 1 hour

How to Play

Participants set up the exercise by generating a random list of things—animals, objects, or people. Write these items on individual index cards. For each item, write some of its qualities or attributes—for example, “An airplane flies through the air, moves along predefined routes, and has an autopilot feature.” Likewise, an oak tree would be noted for its branching structure, its deep roots, and its ability to grow from a very small seed.  Participants shuffle the cards and distribute them randomly. They then use the cards to develop analogies to the problem or issue at hand, asking:

• How is this problem similar to [random object]?

• How would I solve this problem with [random object]?

Participants may also work through one analogy as a group, as in “How would we use a paper clip to solve our data integration problem?”


A truly random list of objects will push the boundaries of the group’s mindset and create new perspectives. If needed, this list can be created in advance of the game itself by an unbiased nonparticipant.

The source of the Forced Analogy game is unknown.

Posted on 2 Comments

Argument map

…complex situations and infoglut.

You need a good oversight to think about your future, or to really understand your clients. You are committed to empathically include everybody’s reasoning and arguments. You want to make wise and just decisions.

✣  ✣  ✣

Making the right choices and decisions is crucial. Often too, we need to decide fast. Do we need to vaccine the world population against swine flu? Should we enter this new market? Can we still trust science after Climategate? Are we going to bail out Greece and Ireland? Can computers think? Do we need a new monetary system?

The [[argument map]] is a systematic approach to mapping a debate in a pleasant and high-quality way as a [[big visible chart]]. It’s process invites every stakeholder to carefully listen to each other’s arguments. It moves away from debate and towards mutual understanding, encouraging empathy. When people are forced to examine other peoples’ points of view there’s a chance for a real conversation.


Generate, collect, prune, and cluster all arguments for and against in a tree-shaped structure on a single A3 sheet of paper.

✣  ✣  ✣

Use the [[force field analysis|force field map]]  to chart weighted forces that direct change.

The [[argument map]] is originally conceived by the Argumentenfabriek.

Number of Players: 5–30

Duration of Play: 1–3 hours

Object of Play

Public debate often diverts into endless low quality discussions and exhausts both the debaters and audience. At the end, you still can’t make a well-informed choice. Many conversations suffer from lack of a central theorem or stand, scarce arguments in favor, or ignored counterarguments.

The goal is to get out all of the issues and arguments before talking about any one issue. Real-life dialogue makes this a challenging goal, yet it is the goal nonetheless.

If you immediately explore the first one or two issues instead of getting a complete argument list, you risk the following:

  1. You will never get the complete list and may miss significant opportunities.
  2. You will end up talking about an issue, which is not the most important issue.
  3. Even if you eventually discover the most important issue, you may have depleted the scarce resources of time and energy.

People have trouble to remember a lot of connections between statements and arguments, and suffer from infoglut—masses of continuously increasing information, so poorly catalogued or organized (or not organized at all) that it is almost impossible to navigate through them to search or draw any conclusion or meaning.

A [[big visible chart]] like the [[argument map]], [[force field analysis|force field map]], or [[hoshin kanri]] gives oversight. Visualizing reasoning helps in practicing critical thinking: clean reasoning, focusing on errors of reasoning, unspoken assumptions, and psychological digressions. [[big visible charts]] will increasingly take over long-winded texts. There is simply no time to read and understand the ever growing thickets of documents.

How to Play

Either use a whiteboard or flip chart or a computer projection and some handy outline software. Step through the process below, and everything important will surface. You will be complete and not miss any important issues or arguments. And you will be able to make a just decision.

  1. Just the Facts—Create a [[facts map]] and briefly share facts and figures related to the topic. No opinions, just (verifiable) facts, please.
  2. Quiet Brain Dump—Take ten minutes or so to find causes and consequences, pros and cons. Jot down any argument you can find in favor or against the case.
  3. Take Turns and Share—Take turns and share a single argument with the group at each turn. Got nothing more? Just pass. Write down the argument on the whiteboard or type in on the computer.
  4. Prune Your Arguments—Delete any argument on your list that someone else also brings up as soon as you hear it.
  5. Be Terse—Relentlessly end any discussions, long-winded stories, or salvo of arguments.
  6. Exhaust Yourself—She or he who passes last, ‘wins’. Still not exhausted? Loop back to 3.
  7. For or Against—Take two flip charts. Label one as “For” and one “Against”. Collect the arguments on their appropriate flip chart. If you are using an outliner software program, simply drag each argument in its appropriate “For” or “Against” class.
  8. Shape, Organize and Thicken—Shape, organize and thicken the arguments. Cluster and categorize the arguments into ‘themes’, facets or aspects. Pick one to three key words for theme name. Within each theme, further subcluster arguments and  label each cluster as a theorem, proposition, opinion, or stand, listing the arguments below. Often you will find similar themes and labels in both “For” and “Against”, but this is not a requirement; they can differ.

Instead of listing arguments and copying them to flip charts, you can also write them down on sticky notes, one argument per sticky note, and put those on the flip chart. Crumple any duplicate stickies.

Repeat this process with other groups of stakeholders.

If you have the time and money, process the harvest into a colorful tree-structured schema like the examples below. Make sure it fits on a single and handy A3-sized sheet of paper, while keeping it legible, of course.

Reasoning errors

Exempli gratiā

This article is a copy of Pareltaal » Argument Map and formatted like a pattern from a pattern language.