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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Deb Colden and Tami Carter Discuss Innovation Games and Dealing with Remote Participants

Deb Colden and Tami Carter Discuss Innovation Games and Dealing with Remote Participants


1. Hi my name is Todd Charron Agile editor here at InfoQ and I’m joined today by Deb Colden and Tami Carter. To start up off, we're here at the Innovation Games Summit, and Deb if you could just start us off, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you kind of got to be at the Summit today?

Deb: I’m a Strategy Facilitator, I have a consultancy sole proprietor so I do Strategy Facilitation and Executive Coaching, I work with people to help them think more rapidly and more successfully about their plans, their strategies, how to get from here to there, where they want to get to and I came to Innovation Games a couple of years ago because I had read Luke Hohmann’s book and was very impressed with the seeming simplicity of the games that he put together for attacking problems and identifying opportunities collaboratively in teams. I love the fact that was in a book and you could use that, you know somebody like me can use it with their clients and then hand them the book and say: “You can do this yourself without hiring a facilitator” so that was great. And 2 years later I now train the techniques, so I do the 2 day training and as an independent consultant I use the techniques with my clients, so I was one of the speakers at this first conference.


2. Great, Tami yourself?

Tami: I have a long history but I came to Innovation Games because Luke, actually I published when I was working for a magazine we published the games before there was a book once a month, and then when I was running a series of conferences I had him come in and do product box for the conference and I got fantastic feedback, in fact we got tones of marketing out of it, and years later when I was looking for another job, somehow I ended up at Innovation Games and it’s been a wild ride since…..


3. I'll put this one out to both of you, what is it about Innovation Games that is so kind of compelling that brings you to want actually do it to this level?

Tami: For what is making so compelling to me is the fact that it works and it’s a way that you can play games to get actual work done, it’s not a simulation and it’s not practice, it’s not education. Now you do definitely learn something during the game, but it’s a way where everyone from the receptionist to the CEO could play a game and get a real world result out of it, you can prioritize your portfolio, you can come up with new product lines, you can find out what your customers hate about your product, what they want out of the new one, I mean it’s endless. I’m constantly amazed of the simplicity of the games and how rich and complex the results can be.

Deb: I think that is really the bottom line for these games, because these are frameworks for techniques that pretty much anybody can use to do pretty sophisticated discovery of needs, unmet needs, understand your stake holders, understand your customers and actually get inside that helps you take action on things, as opposed to sitting there in a room guessing and talking about your guesses for 12 hours at a time.


4. So one thing you mentioned was, you know it was different from Simulations and Serious Games, so how is it different?

Tami: It’s different in the fact that at the end of a game you actually accomplish something, you’ve done something. You have a real result, it’s not practice, so there is a use in simulations because they help you work out scenarios but there is always the essence of like: “Now I’ve done the simulation and not practice now I have to go back and do it for real”, but how are you going to do that job for real? Are you going to prioritize something by throwing up a spreadsheet and having everyone practice, or you are going actually going to play the game, you are going to put money on the table and buy a feature. And the other part about a game is that it helps people who are inherently comfortable, talking in a meeting or being part of a meeting to express themselves. It’s a way to get to the introverts it’s a way to get to extroverts and balance the opinions.

Deb: Let me give you an example. Because we are talking about games and it feels kind of, people might be thinking Board Games, you know are these like those horrible Facilitator Games where we all have to do a trust walk, it’s nothing like that. The one I love to tell people about to illustrate how you see this is, is I tell people: “Put up a sheet of paper and draw a boat on one side and draw an island on the other side” and the island is where you are trying to get to, so put a palm tree, because this is like it’s a really cool island. And you want to go in your boat as fast is possible to the island. Above the water and below the water, so below the water there are anchors hanging off you, it keeps you from going fast and so let’s brainstorm with some of those anchors. Now when you do that with a group who needs to plan about something couple things happen. First of all it really makes tangible what are the barriers. It also does it in a way that doesn’t describe them as finger pointing kind of thing, they are just anchors, those things just slow us down, because it takes some of that negative emotion out of it but it doesn’t take, it actually gives people permission to talk about them and let’s face, people need to complain, they need to vent, this is such a positive way to vent. They can also above the water, they can think about: “What we already have that helps us go faster? We have a smart team” or we are third in our market or we just came out with this new product that nobody knows about and we have the ability to really help our customers. That is cool, that will make us go faster.

So they can really think about sort of a balance sheet of what they have and what is in the way, and they can do that without having any special facilitation skill, you don’t need to know how to draw, you just draw a little squiggle for the water line, little for the boat and draw little circles and it’s great for people like me because I can’t draw to save my life. And so it empowers people to do things fast, you stick up a posted note, that is an anchor, you put it down lower and that means it’s a big anchor and if you cut that line you would go this much faster. People intuitively get the structure of a game like that and all of the sudden when you do that with 4-5 people around an issue that you care about, it’s really liberating and then you can start with problem solving, because now you’ve got some idea of what you are trying to problem solve around. People come together and: “Let’s be innovative” to what end? Start with the problems and think about what it look like if it were different. So the game’s really just create metaphors easy, simple, visual metaphors that allow teams to do that or allow teams to get input from their customers, and they are just kind of fun, you get caught up on it, you just see people and they kind of go: “You too, you thought that too?” and it just builds this kind of energy that you just don’t see in even typical brainstorming.


5. What do you think it is about using Speedboat as an example about that metaphor and using that as suppose to just saying: “What is the list of the stuff that is slowing us down, what is the stuff of the things that we like” Something different seems to happen when you kind of play that game?

Tami: Well I think as humans we use metaphors to make sense of our lives and this is where my background shows up, but we tell stories to ourselves about almost everything and the game structure actually and the metaphor actually gives us a way to talk about something and then catches it in this, there is a beginning, a middle and an end, and it help us to put form into our thoughts where is we are just sitting there and making a list. There is something about the metaphor that helps you prioritize and enabling to make sense of things.

Deb: Like an anchor holds a boat back or the wind and the sales push it forward, I mean everybody gets that it's universal. I think the other thing to be honest with you, and this is my Bias because I just love cartoons, I love things that kind of boil an idea down to an essence and make me laugh, and so if you draw this silly boat, and you tell a bunch of business people it’s ok, just put some post it notes up, all of the sudden they have permission to not be so reserved, to not impress, to say what it is because you are not accusing anybody, you are not saying, you know people really put up: “My anchor is you, is Tami, Tami is my anchor”, no, they might say but even if they don’t say that, they are going to say a lot of other things, that are very actionable like: my anchor is that Tami calls me at the last minute or I won’t even say Tami, I get last minute calls and then I have to rework everything because if I just had 24 hours notice it would be so much easier for me. People start thinking about ways to express their frustrations in a way that then makes it actionable that they can kind of think about how can we fix this? I didn’t even know that was a problem, how can I help you? It’s really powerful and a cartoon can make you laugh, so I like to laugh.


6. One of the nice things that seems to come out of a lot of the Innovation Games is the discussion and collaboration that happens kind of in real time around stuff, maybe you can talk a little bit about that?

Tami: That is probably the most important part, is that the game exists to create that collaboration, I mean there are games that you can play independently but for the most part we are using the games to help groups of people work together. Sometimes without them knowing what it is they're really doing. The example I can think of on the top of my head is actually the Budget Games, the story you told earlier about when the people from the city of San Jose sat down from very different neighborhoods and there was a girl who was from a neighbourhood that was more affluent than that of the others and then, what is she calling, it was the tagging?

Deb: No, she just said, one of the people said: “Let’s just throw out the things that we wouldn’t spend our money on, so let’s just go around and say what we wouldn’t”, because essentially at the time that we are doing the games I think there was a 10 million dollars deficit for San Jose, so they had 20 items and maybe they could fund one or two, so they really were giving it back to the citizens to say: “What do you care about?” and more important: “Why do you care about it?”, so talk about that amongst yourselves and so basically one of the items was that the young women said was: “Graffiti tagging, I probably wouldn’t worry about that” and the women next to her said: “No, well that is my top priority” and I looked to her and I said: “Why?” and she said: “Because in my neighborhood if you put up the tags, the graffiti, it denotes what is one gang territory versus other” and now you’ve created a war zone and my children have to walk to school through that, and her friends walk to school, so as soon as somebody does it in my neighborhood I run into my garage and I grab my paint and I painted over because I don’t want my children running through and possibly getting shot or hurt, it collateral damage to something, gang bust up. There were two kinds of people at the table, eight of us and the Facilitator and the Observer, half of us were people where this is not an issue on a day-today basis, and we all went: “OOO” and that was his young women from the affluent neighborhood and the others said: “Yes, that is right”. All of us when we did the prioritizing, prioritized the gang, graffiti abatement as our top priority. I don’t think that would have happened, had people not work together and heard the story and what that meant.

Tami: I know it was the conversation that the game spurred and it happens and that is a very extreme example of the Civic Engagement Games, but it happens in business all the time, you have people from different divisions, different departments and the game creates a situation where suddenly they have insight into someone else’s perspective that they didn’t have for.

Deb: “I just though you are a jerk, I didn’t realize that you had to deliver this thing three hours after I gave it to you, I can do it four hours earlier, let’s find a way”. People inherently, I think especially in business have a huge desire to solve problems not make problems and so if they can get some insight into a customer need, a stakeholder need and better yet if they can actually do something about that, that is gold, you just see people light up, and so that is what these games create an environment for, a conversation that happens in very little time in ways that might never happen in just the typical: “I’m busy, here is your stuff, here is my stuff”, you don’t understand me, I don’t understand you kinds of things.

Tami: The other thing that works is that when you add an Online Game you can bring that conversation to people who are in different time zones and in different places.

Deb: And that is what we’ve talked about in my workshop this morning.


7. Well I will ask you about that in a moment, but one thing that I did want to clarify on that you mention the Online Games is after just talking about how great the collaboration is in the space, how is that change now when you move it online?

Tami: It does change online, because at the moment it’s no audio and just you are forced to communicate via chat and I’ve facilitated probably more Online Games at this point than I’ve done in Person Games, and it’s a very interesting feeling because you know you have people that are somewhere out there in the Ether and the only way that you can communicate with them is the Chat window. So it takes some extra prodding and nudging to keep people going and to make sure that they are involved. But for the most part the Chat window actually works really well. I’m constantly amazed that people are multitasking, like they are actually chatting and engaging with each other and because they have to type in and having to think about what they are saying, and there is also a safety in the fact that you are not face to face with persons so it gives people who are introverts like myself, when you feel like almost braver and you feel like you can say things that you’ll be afraid to say to someone in face Anonymotiy factor, even though you are not really anonymous and it also helps too which I’ve see with some games when we’ve had a lot of people speak different languages, there will be a lot of native language chatting…..

Deb: I haven't gotten that, but I have gotten the people who, you’ve got maybe one language and it’s not somebody’s native language, they are participating a lot more than they do in a verbal conversation because it’s so hard to be understood.

Tami: It’s funny because whatever language is dominant, like most people speak tends to come out on top but there is always going to be interesting. I’ve just had a game that I’ve done with several people from France, I’m going to practice my French. The Facilitator can see all the chats, and I always tell people upfront and they forget that the Facilitator can see all the whispers.

Deb: The thing about the Chat and why that is important is what is really important about the games, even in a prioritization game where you end up with kind of: “Here is the top picks” because people allocate their scares resources around this and they did that by negotiating so like the Budget Games. It actually isn’t the list, that is the most insightful, it’s the “why” so in the case of the graffiti, if we have turned in, well basically we turned in a check list, if we haven’t had an Observer sitting there, writing down and that is part of the game, so you have an Observer writing down some of the comments, we wouldn’t never got in that “why”. In the Observers in San Jose are actually the San Jose city stuff, so the fire person that is sitting there, the police department guy is listening to this or woman, and they are actually hearing from their customers, what is important and what is not and why, and with the Online Games, and altough the Online Games can feel kind of little awkward and structured, once that they get started they are actually pretty good. Because you are forced to talk through Chat, the “why’s” and the negotiations are caught there and so if you're for example are doing research with customers, let’s say I’m doing stakeholder interviews and I want them to brainstorm, what are the things that are getting in your way with our new process and what ideas do you have. And I can say things like “why”, Facilitator “why” and they go: “Because……” and then it’s captured there, I can downloaded into a report or a spreadsheet and I can actually hand that off to the executives who are sponsoring the research. It’s really very powerful.

Tami: The chat logs are often the most interesting part because you get the result but the results often don’t really see the “why” until you start reading and there is always something really, really interesting.

Deb: The “why” is the insight, the “why” is the thing that gets behavior to change because you begin to understand something from somebody’s else point of view and then you can do problem solving around that as opposed to, they are jerks, they are obviously here to make my life difficult as opposed to: “We are kind of here for the same thing but you’ve got this job and you are in the hook for this and I'm on the hook for this, how do we make this work?”.


8. You mention you get a lot of the “why” out of the Chat logs in the online version, what is kind of the equivalent for the real life version when everyone is in the same room together, you mentioned the Observers, can you explain a bit about what their role is in the games?

Tami: Their role is to basically capture what is going on, so there is a Facilitator generally and the people playing the game and at least one observer. Generally in the things that makes us different from other market research techniques is that we actually want the customers for the most part to be the Observers and to be in the room.

Deb: The customers or the product managers?

Tami: Product managers, I’m sorry. I mean our clients, their customers. Sorry, I’m getting mixed up about my terminology, but if you go to a traditional market research from, they will do like the glass mirror, in focus group and will have the clients outside so they can't actually talk or interact with their customers. We actually want them to hear the information, so will be taking notes and we will have our versions, just to make sure, but the amount of paper…

Deb: The stuff you generate it’s almost overwhelming, but the kind of things we ask our Observers to write down and I think this is different than just somebody observing, is anything that you think is significant whether it is non verbal or verbal, that tells you something about what is important to those folks or a connection that you didn’t realize. So there is a game called Spider Web which allows people to talk about: “Let’s say I’m using a product or a service” or we did one in my classroom, we are talking about high school, who are the users? How do you use a high school? Who uses it, what they get from it, how that the people, the stakeholders the beneficiaries of the high school, let’s say I’m a superintendent who has a limited budget and let’s face it, in California schools are just being waked, recently they’ve had to make draconian cuts and so I remember looking at this Spider Web that showed all these little off shoots of students and PTA and teachers, and there is one and it said: “Vocational Education on one place” and it was attached, they had to attached to another HUB that said: “PTA” and I looked at and I say: “Why is there a connection between the PTA and Vocational Education” and the person who put it up there said: “Well, it turn out that things like car repair classes, cooking classes, things like that, they actually sell their services” at a discount, because they are not professionals and the best consumers are the PTA, the parents and the teachers, and so that is a fund raiser, so if we cut Vocational classes or we cut PTA, we may cut that fund raising chain or we may cut something that we didn’t intend to cut. And so that happens all the time when you bring a team together that is cross-functional in nature, where they see their part of it but they don’t see the other part of it, and so just using something as simple as drawing a little map and saying how are these things connect, and seen those insights people just get smarter, they are not as overwhelmed by it, they actually go I didn’t realize that, and then they can go into problem solving mode which is a natural fun activity for people, that is what a game is, it’s like let me solve this problem or getting from this part of the game to that one, it’s really cool.


9. Now I'll bring us back to we kind of hinted on a little bit earlier which was the topic your talk, so you gave a talk talking about we mentioned the In-person and we mention the online and you actually had the opportunity to try and do both simultaneously or the challenge I suppose of doing both simultaneously?

Deb: I should do a full disclosure, I have always been much more comfortable doing In-person Games then I have Online Games, and typically that is because if there is any mistake you can make with the Online Games I will make it and it’s sort of embarrassing in front of the client. So I usually have somebody help me on the back end, you know either just sort of run the game or make sure that it’s going ok or advise me, Tami has been wonderful to me in that regard. You are my go-to woman. So anyway I was asked to do, I was asked by an internal consultant at Brocade to help them with an Innovation Workshop that was supposed to be done in 4 hours, which is sort of hilarious, anyway it’s like: “Ok, you got 4 hours, innovate and come out with something good”, and he had come to my Innovation Games class and he had design this In-person session and I was kind of his coach because I really want him to do it himself, very excited about it. And about 4 days before we’ve find out that, yes there are going to be 26 people in one place in San Jose who could collaborate on these activities, but one was going to be in Boston and one was going to be in Austin and 3 were going to be in Colorado and well I guess they’ll just have to listen in on the phone and that wasn’t the experience we were designing, we were designing Collaborative Innovation in real time, fast, fun, actionable, insightful, work, and we couldn't do that, so what we did was, Laura who is the Sales Manager of Innovation Games and I and the client Steve Fischer, put our heads together and we said what can we do here, let’s run a hybrid game where we actually duplicate the games that the people in the room are going to play in small groups and create a forth team with just the remote people and they will play their game online and then we will bring everybody back together to debrief the activity. So we play Speedboat and then we brought everybody back together including the online people who are communicating by phone to say so: “What were the key-things that you found?” and it was great because the online people were actually the sales reps and they had more insight into the customer than a lot of the people who are a little bit more back room. So it was just, not only was it great for them and they were so used to every time there was a conference call, they probably check their email and they are half participating. But they asked us if they can do the games longer, they loved the fact that they could collaborate and be so engaged in this and use their knowledge and learn from each other and do it in such a short time frame. And the people in the room liked it too, but for the remote people who have such a subpar experience on an ongoing basis with their peers who are collocated.

Tami: And other people that actually have the information.

Deb: Well I think they all had the information, but this was really valuable and it worked, it was you know, we had to do a lot of work to make sure that we didn’t have microphones goes off, when we put them into their game they actually did know how to use it or they didn’t get kicked out of the system but we worked really hard to make that seemless, it was amazing.


10. You also mentioned in your session that you might have taken a different approach if there had only been one or maybe two people that were remote, could you maybe fill us in?

Deb: One of the problems if you have one or two people who are remote is that you don’t have enough to actually collaborate as a team so we were actually lucky that there were 5. Before we came up with the design people thought: “Well maybe we can get…” and this is very standard thinking. The people in Colorado work together so will just do a little mini team there and then will have this person and they'll just write by themselves, and that breaks up the whole idea of having that building effect that you get from collaborative brainstorming or prioritization. You know what I might have done is I might have take asked some of the people in the room to actually participate in the one game, so key-thing is to level the plain-field so everybody has a good but similar interaction with each other, because otherwise you have people who are haves or have nots in terms of interactions.


11. What typically happens in that kind of scenario, why is that important to level the plain-field?

Deb: Well because if you don’t level the plain-field, the remote people will always kind of fall out, we will forget that there is somebody on the phone, we will forget and jump up and write up on a flip chart, and they can’t see that, and now they can, it’s like a sort of blindfold around them, or we are limited to working with static types of information tools like a power point slide, so there is no back and forth. And so the power of In-person activities like this is that they are fast and they are interactive, you can move things around and you can talk and you can write things down. You can’t do that usually remotely but with Innovation Games you actually can, but everybody has to be in that mode, you can’t have one person or two people up on a wall and then two people off on an Online Game and expect those people to play a game together you can bring them together to show their insights but you have to level the plain-field, either be all remote or all In-person, and what we did was a hybrid, or we did that simultaneously and I don’t think anybody had done that before.

Tami: No, we discussed that but don’t think we had ever actually done that before.

Deb: So we just carved-off a piece and they loved it and the best thing was it didn’t detract from the experience of the In-person people or the people online and they got to learn from each other, so I thought that was pretty good. Would I have preferred that they were all in the room, yes.

Tami: So we had a thing, I don’t remember who’s for but Laura and I had done sort of a dry run when we had a group of people but was sort of a demo, we couldn’t have, we had a large meeting of 30 people and we couldn’t have everyone play, so we did a game where Laura and I facilitated the game for 5 to 6 people and it was then shared on a screen for the other people in the room to see, what it was like, that was like the technical aspect, so after doing that the leap to doing like a parallel, In-person Games and Online Games was more possible because we’ve done sort of that of pairing meeting.

Deb: You know what you are hearing here that it’s kind of interesting is, the games can be used by people with varying degrees of experience, so I actually was talking to a group at Chaveron and they had not gone through the class, they had not see the game so they wanted to use them in the meeting, and I was able to describe Speedboat and they drew it in the room without me there and actually did Speedboat and then we can talk about what Speedboat would look like so they had a feeling of what a game interaction would look like because it was so simple. What you start getting into is really design, design choices. How do you take these games and configure them or other kinds of frameworks, and configure them for the environment so that you first of all, can achieve the goal you want and second of all, make it as engaging powerful and fast as you can to get the goal, and that is what a designer and a facilitator does, is they kind of pull from their toolkit to figure out how to do this and so you said what about 1 or 2 people would you, I think I’m remembering the comment now, I said: “If you’ve got 7 people meeting and even one is remote, my default is to be to have everybody to work online and that sounds heretical, but you might as well just not even invite that other person because they will not be able to contribute in the same way”, they will either be ignored or they will hold the rest of the team back because you are trying to accommodate them, unless you come up with a really interesting kind of design, and I think that is what Innovation Games allow me to do because it had this online capability, couldn’t done that 5 years ago.

Tami: You’ve started with a goal.

Deb: Yes, I started with what I was trying to accomplish.

Tami: And the games were a tool, whether Online or In-person, a tool to get you to the goal, and the goal was not the important thing, the result was the most important.

Deb: And that is what I do, in half of it, half of working with the team like that is really getting them to define their goals, because it is really easy to have a meeting, it’s really hard to define what success looks like to you, what would you walk away with and what would you do with that, and that is our job as Strategy Facilitator is to help people refine what they are doing and then as they learn more to refine it again and then build the road map to get there and bring people with it, and that is not just a game, but a game is an incredible tool that you can use as sort of like building blocks to build modular pieces together and configure them in different ways.

Todd: Thank you very much!

May 08, 2013

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