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Making Games for High Performing Teams

MMS Founder

Article originally posted on InfoQ. Visit InfoQ

The gamestorming model describes a process to create games. It provides concepts like game space, boundaries, rules, artifacts and goals, for creating compelling learning experiences in an organizational setting. Such games can be used by teams to experiment, focus on outcomes, and try out disruptive patterns.

Jon Odo, agile coach at athenahealth, spoke about making games for high performing teams at the Agile Games conference 2018. InfoQ is covering this event with Q&As and articles.

InfoQ spoke with Odo about psychological safety, the growth mindset, and how to design games that help teams improving their performance.

InfoQ: How would you describe psychological safety?

Jon Odo: Psychological Safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions or mistakes. The more psychological safety people feel, the more likely they are to both take risks and to bring their whole selves and best ideas to the table.

It is one of the key foundations that underpins a learning organization. Without it teams and individuals will be risk averse, following established patterns of behavior and dampening their instinct to innovate. They also exhibit lower levels of enthusiasm, engagement, and overall performance.

InfoQ: What makes it so important for agile teams?

Odo: At the heart of any Agile methodology is empirical process control (inspect and adapt) – the notion that we should carefully consider both our results and our processes and change them continuously to achieve better and more sustainable outcomes. Psychological safety is absolutely necessary if we’re going to delve into entrenched views and align our personal values with the most important work for the organization. We need to be comfortable expressing views that might be considered controversial, and curiously inquiring into the views of our team. Without feeling that trust we’ll leave avenues for improvement unexplored, and disagreements unresolved.

The work itself is often uncertain; Agile methodologies offer a disciplined way to learn quickly, pursuing good product directions while quickly closing off dead ends. If teams do not feel safe to experiment, if output is valued over learning, teams will align their actions to output over outcomes, to conservative patterns over disruptive ones. Without psychological safety, we are far more likely to finish a worthless feature for the sake of completion, rather than celebrate what we learned and move on to something our customers love.

InfoQ: At the agile games conference you explored positive psychology and the growth mindset. How do these concepts relate to high performing teams?

Odo: Positive Psychology builds on strengths, focuses on engagement and emphasizes the importance of flow, all of which are great tactics for building high performing teams. Add to that a growth mindset which is the notion that we are capable of not just building skills, but building intellectual capacity through challenge, failure, and ultimately, learning. These underpin teams with grit, teams that challenge themselves, teams that view failure as learning opportunity. In short, teams that are much more likely to be high performing.

InfoQ: What can we do to design games that help teams improve their performance?

Odo: The very first thing is to align on not only on what high performance means, but also on the values and principles we hold in striving to achieve that performance. Resilience to change and managing/minimizing change look similar when measured by team throughput, but they imply profoundly different kinds of behaviors expectations. Targets for performance will miss the mark if they aren’t imbued with a deep understanding of that kind of organization we want to be.

From a tactical standpoint, I love the conceptual simplicity of the Gamestorming model – it succinctly describes a process for creating compelling learning experiences in an organizational setting. Detailed enough to follow as a recipe, the model is also fractally expansive enough to use as the basis for changing the culture of an entire organization. I’d strongly encourage folks to employ it first in the simplest of constructs (a retro or icebreaker for example) and build from there.

InfoQ: Can you give an example of how you used the gamestorming model? How did that work out?

Odo: I based a large part of my presentation around the model to give context and shape to the exercise (build a game designed to promote psychological safety). Using guidelines on what’s important for a game (Game Space, Boundaries, Rules, Artifacts, Goals) and a template prompting creative though around these, we broke into teams to design and test games.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time to complete multiple play-test cycles for each team, but there were some intriguing ideas explored. For example, a game to describe the team’s culture by drawing it and passing that drawing around to work on collaboratively, and another that was madlibs-inspired around what kinds of behaviors promote safety and which don’t. With better time management I think we would have come up with some very interesting, and business-applicable exercises.

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