Bio Luke Hohmann is the Founder and CEO of The Innovation Games® Company the leading provider serious games that help organizations create, market, and sell innovative products and services. The author of three books with long titles, Luke’s playfully diverse background of life experiences has uniquely prepared him to design and produce serious games.
The Innovation Games® Summit brings together a diverse and wide ranging group of people who are using Innovation Games® to put ideas into action. At the Summit, we share insights, experiences, develop new and exciting games, network and, of course, play. Seriously. (Most of the time).
1. Hello my name is Todd Charron and I’m an Agile editor here at InfoQ and I’m joined today by Luke Hohmann. Hi Luke! So you are the founder of the Innovation Games Company and we are here at the Innovation Games Summit, this is the first ever summit?
Yes, first ever summit.
We’ve been doing this for ten years and we have a growing and global community of both game players at the corporate level and game Facilitators who are either within a corporation or they're consultants, some in the Agile Community, some in other communities, and it just kind of seemed the right time to celebrate 10 years of serious gaming and also look forward to the future of what that might bring and bring people together, and it was really a gratifying and wonderful experience.
3. Nice, so one of the things you talked about when you gave your Keynote Presentation was kind of little bit of the history and but you kind of started after you got started, but how did you get to the first Innovation Game?
So is the prehistory of the Innovation Game, so there is a couple of threads that we even to the prehistory. First is I did a lot of actual work as a manager and a developer and I was always kind of trying to find better ways to do things, I was reading Jerry Winsberg’s book and Meilir Page-Jones, David Parnas and Fred Brooks and all these really great leaders of the field and what I came to believe was that I wanted to see if I can go deeper so wrote a book, my first book, “Journey of the Software Professional”, and that was actually through my years of study at the University of Michigan where I actually studied how programmers program, and I built programming environments to teach novices the techniques of experts and those where things called plans, and what is interesting about plans is that they were actually the precursor of what we now call Patterns and if you read the Design Patterns book, my professor Elliot Soloway was actually referenced by the Gang of Four as one of their influences in the development of Patterns. So thread one is cognitive psychology and how people solve problems.
Thread two is I had the opportunity to work with the Organizational Behavior Set Michigan and I started to realize this notion of problem solving and small group interaction, which we talked about a lot in the Agile Community is really important, but we talk about it many times in a superficial way so what I was able to do with that second thread was understand how deep thinking organizational behaviorists talk about group interaction, so Agilists talk about how to do a meeting but the Organizational Behaviorists say: “This is why that is happening” and they talk about complex funny terms and they don’t have to use it, like shared transactional memory systems or didactic interactive response or the difference of goal and an equifinal meaning, but these are all things that weave in to this notion. And the third thing is, I was consulting for a number of years, either at EDS or and then at Object Space and then I got my first product job and I realized that I wanted to build the best systems I could, and I just started to do a variety of things, I starting doing Low Fidelity Prototyping, before it was really well known, and I don’t want to say independently discovered it because they didn’t, but it was among these activities, but what I kept on finding was I wanted to keep digging deeper, deeper into what motivates people to buy a product, what is their problem to solve. And I starting doing these crazy activities, and these crazy activities some worked, some didn’t work, and the ones that work I collected and over time they became Innovation Games.
The earliest one that I always refer to because it’s in actually Journey of the Software Professional is Remember The Future. Now I have a much better brand name for that, when I first wrote about it, it was called “Future Perfect Thinking” and when I first talked about it at the Agile Conference in 2003, the first Agile Conference, a bunch of people in the room, they came in and some people relabeled it to be pre-mortems and I never liked the term, I’m in a retrospective community camp that doesn’t like the term “mortem” in any way, rather pre or post, because it's a project retrospective, someone didn’t die, at least I hope not, but yes, that is what I really attribute and in fact in the book Innovation Games there is a photo from a “Remember the Future” that I did with my team at a company called Origin Systems, from way back in 1997, and it was from one of my developers at that time a guy named Dave Smith, he saved the photo, I didn’t even have it. So yes, that is the first game, and some of the games were developed in responses to problems that I was experiencing as I got higher into the organizations, so when I was a developer and when I was a manager of developers, there is certain set of problems, but as I started to move up in to be the C-level executive, I realized there were different levels of problems and I needed other activities that dealt with them.
5. Why do you think these ideas, these Innovation Games, why are they so important as opposed to having say a post or a pre-mortem or having those traditional meetings, what sets them apart, why are they important?
One of the things that sets them apart is that in the Game community we have a term called The Game Frame and it’s this place that you enter or you don’t necessarily have to be acting in the same ways you do in the real world, so by giving yourself some freedom to operate a little differently, you can start conversations a little bit more openly and a little bit more directly, but what is interesting is that the concept of the Serious Game says that the outcome materially affects the players, so even if we start to play in a fun way in a Serious Game, we actually start to play seriously because we know: “I’m prioritizing my features” that matters or “I’m developing my product roadmap” and that is really important, and I start to become deeply invested in how that outcome occurs and that is what producers uses the best results, is the sense of engagement that happens when you enter in the game frame, that turns into something that you are vigorously pursuing because it affects you.
It’s funny, the branch of the game tree I draw this in my classes, the game tree is enormous, it’s a 70+ billion dollars industry when you look at all forms of games, and there is massive multiplayer online role playing games and First Person Shooters and sports games, but the branch of the tree that you just brought up is actually a branch of the tree, is called Serious Games, and within that branch we have Educational Games and I recommend of course the site Tasty Cupcakes, it’s a wonderful website, run by some great people, but if you actually look it's about Agile Games and the Agile Games Community defines an Agile Game as a game designed to teach the principles of Agile. Teaching content is an important outcome in business and there is an outcome that is well achieved through games, so another example would be L’oreal, the cosmetics giant, they actually have a business simulation that they use secretly as a recruiting tool. IBM has a simulation game called City 1 that they use as sales tool to sell IBM services for cities. So Agile Games are part of the tradition of a simulation that teaches which is really important. Our games differ because the result of playing our game isn’t a simulation, is the actual prioritized portfolio of a company, it is the actual set of process improvements that are needed, not a simulation of what that might be like to improve my process, it's the actual process improvement, so it’s a thin line but it’s actually an important line, and of course we celebrate all of them.
7. One other difference that I notice in the Innovation Games is how important and how called-out it is, at least in how the games are defined, is the role of the Observer, so what is that role and why is that important as well?
The original application of Innovation Games was as a form of market insight as to allow companies to take confident action and this is something that I get a little upset about with the Agile Community, the Agile Community basically says: “We have a backlog, we can deliver stuff fast, so let’s just go ahead and put stuff in the backlog” and there is way too much slop and one backlog and one backlog item might not seem that impactful, but when you look at the epics that really move the needle of companies, and you look at an erpic decomposing saying to 20, 30, 40 users stories. Well now you're looking at a couple hundred thousand dollars to a half of million dollars spend and you don’t want to take that on lately if you are an executive. So what happens is that we want to bring in the notion of insights from as many ears and eyes as we can, so Observers are part of a game, so that the facilitator can focus on drawing out information and the Observers can focus on understanding how customers, which are the predominant players of the games, are reacting, how the customers are engaging, what the customers are really saying, and we recommend an advocate cross-functional facilitation teams because in the Market Research Community, the term would be Bias, we all have a Bias, we all have a way of listening for information, developers are going to listen to problems expressed by a customer from the perspective of what feature would solve it.
A sales person is going to listen to the problems expressed by a customer, from what is the business value in terms of how much money they can extract from it. A marketing person might listen to the business problem expressed by a customer and say: “Should we build it, should be partner, should we buy, what is my strategy before I just let us going off and running” because many product managers once they get used to Agile, they get so much confidence in their developer teams and say: “Yes, my developer team can build anything”, I better figure out the right thing, and so by having a cross-functional team of observers, we create a much more actionable outcome because people can argue about their Biases and their inherent perspectives and the roles that they play.
8. For an Agile team that's you know maybe you know they’ve done Agile training, they’ve done simulations and they are kind of going now, where would you see them looking to or where would Innovation Games kind of fit in?
So given, I hope it’s reasonably fair to say that InfoQ skews for a technical audience, as opposed to say, a Marker Research audience, so one area that I think it’s, and this was done with collaboration with some brilliant minds like Chris Sterling who wrote a really nice book on technical debt, and he is also a certified Innovation Games Facilitator. An area that we found it is really is really nice for Agile teams to get started, is first the identification and prioritization of technical debt, so if you went to a normal developers team and you said: ”Ok, do you have some technical debt” there is some stuff that we want to fix because we are humans and there is always stuff we want to fix. You get actually put a cost on that, then you can go to the product managers and say: “Look, we need to make some investments in our technology and we need to remove some for technical debt, and the product manager may not say I’m going to give you all of the iteration to do that but they might give you like here is your budget in terms of points, story points, or you could do a version of buy a feature on technical debt and we’ve done this with some companies where the dev teams are now in control of the technical debt that they tackle as determined by how much story points they can spend.
Now another area that we found from some of our really wonderful facilitators is that we are finding that retrospectives and distributed teams, especially when the distributed teams are coming from cultures that may not be as pure equal as western cultures, they may not get very good results, so plainly speaking if you do a distributed team retrospective and your are outsourcing to say India or China, you tend to find that everything is doing fine and there is really no problems, and it's really hollow because as Agilists, we know that we want to know the problems so we can fix them and improve the system. So what we find is that by going into our online platform and doing say Speedboat which is a great tool for retrospectives in an online form, neutralizes some of the language barriers that can exist and allows distributed teams to express more of their reality and how they perceive their process needs to be improved. That is a great way for Agile teams to get started, doing a distributed team or local team retrospective.
9. You kind of mention the online and offline, so you guys do obviously offer a lot of these games online, so what changes, you mention one thing in particular in that case, in the case of cultural differences and how it’s come out in the online version, what else changes, what kind of benefits are lost from an in person one going on online, but what other benefits are gained?
It’s funny, this question has come up, I have two very long blog posts, so I will summarize the blog posts because there is a lot of differences. One thing is that roughly 80% and some people argue, it’s a little bit less, it’s a little bit more, but I'll just pick a lot of human communication is body language, like right now you just smiled at me, the viewers can’t see it, but you nodded and smiled, so that gives me communication even though you are not talking, so what you find is that in person games are very powerful when there is some active physicality to the game or there is some notion of shared knowledge within the group that is important to convey through body language. That said, because in the online games I’m using a chat facility, the online games tend to have a quality of being more elaborative, because people have to make more articulate arguments and so, another area that we find is that in the Market Research Community there called the Tabu Topics, is like financial practices or health practices, or sexual practices, in the Market Research Community we actually know that we get better results when we are mediating certain complex topics through the pseudo-anonymity provided by a computer screen. So it’s really difficult as a Market Researcher to walk up to someone and to expect a truthful response, to something like: “How much do you have sex, or what kind of sex do you have, or with whom, or with what”, but you get better responses, so it’s never a question for us of: “Is one better than the other”, they are just different, and their application is slightly recommended at different times.
10. Here is one of the Curve-Balls, one of the things that I notice like came up few times in your talk and through out the conference, was that you are working on San Jose in Silicon Valley and all that, Lean Startup is a very big thing and there was a couple of digs you took at it, so maybe explain that, where you are coming from?
I say the good things, I love the idea of a Lean Startup producing a product that gets to market quickly and it's designed to get some feedback, and I love that, and I think that it’s great for a lot of things, but there is a lot of triviality that is emerging in the Lean Startup community that I’m very much against, so one thing is and this is definitely part of my background. I’ve spent the majority of my career working in the enterprise, so I’ve either work for large companies like EDS or I work for large companies like Cisco or Qualcomm and you know, you just don’t move the needle in business on a minimum viable product that was created in two weeks by a couple people in a garage, and the confusion and the stories of “I created a toy app on the iPhone” that got successful in the consumer market through Lean Principles is rather challenging to translate and the other thing that I dislike about the Lean Startup and I actually wrote a blog post about this, this notion of perseverance or pivoting, and in Silicon Valley at least it’s kind of cool now to say: “ You know I pivoted” or did you just have a stupid idea and you did no market research and you shouldn’t have done in the first place and you managed to secure a little bit angel funding and they convince you that you should do something else, or did you just give up because the going got tough and you should have kept going. So I like the principles of Lean Startup but I’m becoming a bit dismayed at some of the applications and some of the triviality of the applications, because I think what we do it’s too important to approach it blithely.
Todd: : It’s interesting because we have kind of an overlap and we had Alexander Oswaldo as a Keynote speaker who is very much embraced by the Lean Community for his business model canvas.
Well actually you pointed out that many people in the Lean Community didn’t embrace the full Canvas because they think it’s too hard, so they lightened it up and Alexander proceeded to show up what they left out which was dangerous, so building successful products is hard, and you have to kind of deal with it, but Alexander is remarkable.
11. I just wanted to ask you, because it’s an interesting thing that we had. Obviously there is Lean Canvas and Lean Startup side of things, Alexander here and obviously yourself, so there is a whole lot of Lean Startup stuff going on around a conference that wasn’t really very Lean Startup focused?
The reality is, you are going to see us likely publish some more detail about how Innovation Games fits into the Lean Startup or the Lean Community and the reality is that like I’ve got Steve Bank’s original book before it got widely accepted, I have one of the copies where he kind of self printed it, and it was wonderful then it is wonderful now, it’s the customer development model, but those books often focus on what you should do and why you should do it, which is important, but they give very little insights in the how, so again Steve if you are looking at this great, love your stuff, however, if you read his book, the end of every chapter is anywhere between 10 and 80 questions that you are supposed to answer, well how are you supposed to answer to those questions? Exactly how do I answer the question, what is the minimum viable product? Well I could splat crap on the web and see what people respond to it, and if you've got money then you can do it, so maybe that is the way to go or you can cut through a lot of that crap bring him into the room, play a Product Box game, play a Spider Web game, play a Buy a Feature game and have a lot more confidence on what customers are looking for in your Lean Startup and that is kind of where we see Innovation Games partnering with the Lean Community because they talk about what you should do and why you should do it and we can give you the how you should do it.
12. So speaking of kind of the how and how to do things, to kind of move that forward you’ve kind of started a Certification Program, and also from people I’ve talk too earlier, you are kind of very against the Certification Programs for a while before kind of …?
I wouldn’t say I was against them, I was against bad ones, because I do think there is some really remarkably good ones in our community, and this is actually informed because Ed Yourdon challenged James Bach and I in 1999 when there was all this Y2 craziness, to write an article and I wrote an article with James called: “Certification is Discrimination” we roped in Kem Canner who was a noted legal expert in software development and certification is a form of discrimination, you certify friends, that is a form of discrimination, who you hang out with. The question is who is certifying whom, what is the certification standard against what body of knowledge or practice and what will the results be used for, so society develops certifications to protect the interests of society. We certify doctors and surgeons and mechanical engineers because people die if people who are doctors prescribe the wrong medicine and people who are not mechanical engineers design bad bridges and bad buildings, so the question is and the question back in 1999 was: “Should we certify software developers who have such a massive impact in our world if the world is going to go kablooey in Y2K. Well the analysis that James and I did, suggest that certification at a very formal standard and a software field is not likely to occur because the economics of that kind of certification which leads to legal liability and the ability to basically think of certification is the ability to sue, that is not going to happen in software because it will raise the costs.
However there are many other certifications that happen that are beneficial. So I was against certification done badly, I’m for models of certification that we think provide value to both the people being certified and the people who are consuming this certification, and markets tend to determine that. So we worked with Michigan State University, we spent several months and we’ve designed a certification program predominantly because our largest customers said: “Look we are starting to hire people and require they have Innovation Game skills, we are starting to produce larger events, people want to know that the people at these events and the people that we are hiring have the skills that they are claiming” and that is what our program is designed to illustrate, is that not that you took a class but that you actually have the skills to produce and facilitate games.
The way that we do it is that we are inspired by Martial Arts, so we took a Karate level, so there is 9 belt levels that goes from white to black, organized in three bands. Now there is a formula that says your experience credit, the experiences that you have is the some of the facilitation experiences or the facilitation credits, the production experiences or production credits and your training experiences or your training credits, and now this is this kind of funny thing about training, I think training is very powerful and very beneficial but I don’t think it's required in any real certification program because if a certification program is based on demonstrated competence, there should be a way for people who haven’t been through some training but have the skill and the requisite life experience to become certified in that art if you will. Because my company embraces Market Research we have for example many Market Researchers and a qualitative Research Consultant Association who have been doing great Market Research for years, add the games to their tool kit, they don’t really need the class, they are very skillful facilitators. And so the way we organized our program is the lower three bands you can achieve through training and that is just a starting condition and it gets you started. The next three bands, the middle bands, they require actual demonstrated knowledge of facilitating games and the highest three bands require knowledge of both facilitating and producing events, so when the VP of engineering walks up to Todd and says: “Todd we have this problem, we are wondering if a game could help”, you can actually design the outcome and design the game that would lead to the outcome that you are looking for.
14. An interesting thing kind of came up repeatedly in the sessions that were part of the summit, was normally when somebody pictures a certification it's here is how you do this, we have trained to do this, you go and do this, but the recurring theme over and over was here is how I modified this, and here is how I modified that, so how does the certification adapt to a model where really it is how you change things?
Let’s use something that the people who are watching this or reading the interview would likely know and that is the concept of patterns. The whole point of a pattern is that it is a generative thing, there is stereotypic ways of implementing singleton, and yet we’ve all written code where we’ve even implemented singleton a little different, so that was what I was trying to achieve when I designed our games, I call them the Pancake pattern of Market Research or engagement, so let’s say you wanted to prioritize some features and you wanted to use buy a feature so you just pick up the book or go to the website and play that game, but let’s say there is a variation where you want to guarantee that people are collaborating, while you tweak the rules a little bit because it’s a game, we all are mod games, we all play Monopoly with different rules or Settlers of Catan or Stratego or Risk or whatever game that we are playing, we all play card games, we can bend the rules a little bit, we change the rules to get the right outcome. In those cases the outcome is enjoyment, in our cases the outcome is answering a business, question or solving a business problem, so yes, that is what we mean by the notion of a Producer versus a Facilitator. We produce very large events for clients, and today we produced a very large event for the city of San Jose, so we had over a hundred citizens, we had almost 20 tables and those Facilitators come in and they facilitate according with the design of the game but the design of the game was done earlier. Our community, they groove on modding the games and changing the games, and that is wonderful and I learn all the time from people who have done mods, and I say: “Yes, that is a really cool mod, I'll do that too”.
15. You brought up another interesting point, Games at Scale, what kind of changes when you go from say: a lot of the ones in the book are designed for small teams of people but then going to something much larger?
There are two aspects of Scale. One aspect of Scale is the physical materials required for a game, so a game like a Spider Web where you draw a set of relationships on a wall, scales less effectively than a game like Buy a Feature where you can sit people at a table because I just need wall space, and a game like start your day where I might have a need literary for 20 or 30 meters of wall space, doesn’t scale very much because that's just a lot of wall space. So some games scale very well physically and then typically the games that scales very well physically would have one Facilitator and one Observer, so there is this combination of how many people can you bring into this physical space and then there are natural limits to that and then how many Facilitators for the games, and then in the online system it scales almost without bounds, provided again that you have the Players and the Facilitators organized in groups of 5 to 8. But yes, some games scale pretty well and today we did 19 tables with San Jose, 19 or 20, our goal maybe next year is maybe do 100 tables and scale to 800 citizens or 1000 citizens and that would the game that we are playing with San Jose, the Budget Game which is a derivative of buy a feature that would scale very broad.
The history, it’s a really fun history, so Kim Walesh is the head of strategy and economic development for the city of San Jose. Four years ago she had the possibly unenviable honor of sitting next to me on a plane flight from San Jose to Dallas. Imagine sitting next to me for four hours, we are going to talk about games eventually and of course I listened to some of her business problems and she talked about how the city has got to prioritize and make cuts, and I say: “Well, we can solve that.”, “You work for businesses”, “yes, businesses have prioritization problems too.” “We have very vocal minority citizens, I bet your businesses don’t have that!”. Of course I laugh, because we all have had , the one customer who demands everything and they sometimes are right but you’ve got to balance the needs of a lot of customers and I say no. In 2010 I went to a priority setting activity that the mayor runs and it was not very engaging bluntly, and I convinced them that we could produce a better event. I started with buy a feature as my design and we adapted it to meet the needs of the city and we ran it in 2011 and it was such a massive success that we did it again in 2012 and now in 2013, and we hope that we can scale it around the world, today I was really proud of the fact that we provided a whole global community of Facilitators to the city of San Jose completely pro-bono to accomplish these goals, it was really amazing.
The next step is, in the Market Research process the first step is understanding the goals and the questions and what the city is going to do with the answers. What the city is going to do with the answers is use it as part of the prioritization process in the budgeting cycle, so we are in the just at the start of the budgeting cycle which will end in June. So then what we do is we select or design the game, we bring the participants in, we play the game, we acquire the data which is where we are now. So the data that we have coming out of this game is that for each table we have a set of choices that the citizens made around either cutting items in the budget or raising taxes to generate funds that they can then spend on other projects or proposals, and of course the question is: “Do they want to raise taxes to fix the pavement or not?”, that is the question.
What we will do is will take the facts which are what they choose and what they funded, put those in a spread sheet and organize it, not in a statistically significant way because is not a statistically significant sample, but instead in a way that just says: “These numbers of citizens did these things” so it gives an intensity ranking. Then all of the observer notes and the Observers are giving a special form to fill out, all the Observers will give us their raw notes and the answers to I believe it’s nine specific questions about the game, those will be transcribed, those will be put into word documents and then what I do is working with my team, we grunge it together and we make a report, and it’s an independent report, the city has no influence in what we say and how we say it, and we say what I tell people on my classes is: “I have no opinion until I acquire the data and then after I acquire the data, I have an opinion that is informed by data.” So we will make a recommendation, a non binding read out from the citizens today suggests that a significant priority for the citizens was improving police and gang prevention. This is not a surprising result when you look at last year, there was a significant increasing homicides in the city of San Jose, and so there is some balancing that appears to be going on with the citizens about what they were thinking about public safety and what they were thinking about relative to the budget priorities.
There are some stories of course, the citizens love the process and they find it very engaging and very enjoyable, but I think what is more interesting is, you know the ultimate question is: ”So what”, did this do anything and the answer is: “Yes”, so for example in 2011 the citizens wanted to eliminate the helicopter program to save 1.2 million and reduce the number of staff in the fire truck from five to four and it saved some numbers of millions of dollars, I can’t remember the number, and the city actually you can trace the direct outcome from the game through validation, through others survey instruments to the action of the city council. In 2012 the city made some choices around community centers and we tested increasing taxes, and what was interesting was that the city tested a tax increase and it was overwhelmingly supported by the participants in 2012. However what’s happened in the state of California was that the state raised taxes and so the city had a choice do we add on to that or not, but what I felt was interesting is I was talking with my wife and she says: “There is these tax balancing initiatives, what do you think it’s going to happen?” and I said: “One of them it will pass, I guarantee that” and she said: “Why?”, because the data of our game in San Jose was at overwhelmingly at least one tax measure passed, so California last year had I think four different tax measures and one of them did pass. So you get these signals of intent when you do qualitative research that are usually pretty darn accurate. This year I don’t know what is going to happen because we have not finished plowing through the data.
19. One thing that you know, I noticed was interesting is some of the dialog in conversations that happens at these tables between diverse groups of citizens, any particular story you want to share on those lines?
Last year, and I’m going to go with last year because this year I’m still just processing really that what happened. Last year one thing I remember is, in the tax increase, one table we give citizens about 90 minutes to play the game and one table argued about the taxes for 87 minutes and we said there is 5 or 3 minutes left, they finally agreed to raise, the taxes needed the fund what they really wanted to do and it was this really big debate and one of the citizens said: “If you had asked me coming in to this, I’m a pretty staunch conservative, if you asked me if I would ever raise taxes I would say no, but when I actually looked at what we needed to do and we can't do what we need to do and that we raise taxes”, and I can’t believe that happened to me. That is what I love, as a Market Researcher I don’t actually care about the outcome because the outcome is the outcome, what I care about is how do we get to that outcome? And who do we engage? And how do we engage them?
For more information about Innovation Games that is easy, www.innovationgames.com and that includes the Certification Program and the Online Games it’s all there, for information about Budget Games and our philanthropic activities go to www.everyvoiceengaged.org, it is a separate organization, it is a non profit and I have to give a shot out to one of the Agile Community rock stars, Lyssa Adkins who came up with the name and gave it to me and when she was becoming a certified Innovation Game Facilitator I was talking about this and I said: “You know we don’t really have a good name for this” and we did a little Innovation Game on the name and she suggest that is really about engagement, how about every voice engaged and it’s a brilliant name and I will always try to recognize her contribution because I think it’s considerable, when you can name something you can own it and she give us a way to own this.
Todd: Thank you very much!
Thank you so much!