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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Tom Grant on Changing the Rules of Work

Tom Grant on Changing the Rules of Work


1. Hi, everyone this is Todd Charron, one of the Agile editors here at InfoQ and I am at the Innovation Games Summit and I am joined today by Tom Grant. Hi, Tom. You’re giving the closing keynote here at Innovation Games Summit, “It’s Time to Change the Rules of Work”. What prompted you to use that as the title for this specific conference?

Well, because I think the real power of Innovation Games, serious games in general is in their ability to change the rules, the unspoken rules sometimes we operate by, the overt rules that govern the way that we work, org charts and process diagrams and God knows what else. And when those existing rules don’t work, they need to be replaced by something and Innovation Games has this great track record of being the short powerful burst of something new that breaks the typical rules and comes out with good results.


2. So, why is now the time?

For a lot of reasons. One is certainly that a lot of organizations feel they could be better innovators, there is an openness to that. And I think that is expressed by a lot of the executive level now and people are more mature about innovation realizing that it’s not about just pumping out new technology, it’s about the value perceived by the people receiving the technology, it has I think a lot to do with the economy that put a lot of extra pressure on the people, I think that this particular trend started earlier and there have been ways like Agile, Lean etc. that have been successful at changing some aspects of the innovation process and then people are willing to reach out and do more. There is a lot of second order effects of Agile that we’ve seen, so just talking about software for a moment, inspires people to do a different sort of requirements or dev ops, we are really revisiting the relationship between the dev team and the operations team but these are natural progressions after one adopts Agile and this is certainly part of that second order effect now.


3. For some of the viewers who may not know who you are, maybe give us a little bit of your background and how you came to actually be here at the Innovation Games Summit?

Sure. So, my story is I used to use long before I was in the software industry, especially when I was in grad school, used to use games, not innovation games, these are more simulation games, lot of role playing exercises and so forth, in an educational setting to try to drive some points home and then it was clear that there were other applications for that and once I got into the software industry there was an opportunity then to play around with things and there were already game like activities like planning poker, you can’t get something that looks more like a game than that, and it was also something that was a passion of mine because as being a software professional before becoming an analyst, it was clear there was a lot of failure and a lot of unnecessary failure and anybody who works in a software team is often befuddled by what went wrong and being able to get better customer insights cut through the team dynamics that aren’t working, whatever else a serious game can do was attractive and now that I am a Forrester analyst it seems like a natural fit with the other things that I write about Agile, Lean, application life cycle management requirements, it’s there like a fairly obvious way of attacking some of those particular challenges in a new way.


4. One of the things you talked about at perhaps with you being with Forrester kind of raises that, you talked about the Standish Report and a lot of these old things and you had a particular slide of someone yawning in the boardroom of this. So, what’s boring about those and why?

Well, they were boring because they were the same statistics over and over again and they didn’t really compel people to act. I think there was not just a high rate of failure, there was a fail zone. It’s like the people who live next to the Niagara Falls; they eventually accept that there is going to be this constant noise, however annoying it is they learn to live with it. I think though that certainly once you see that there is a possibility of things being different you seize it, and as we were talking about earlier too, I think software as a service certainly inspired people to think that there might be better ways of understanding the customer through analytics and everything, serious games is also a way of inspiring people to go beyond that sort of fatalism, because the customer was far away. If you work in a software company here in the Valley, your average customer is somebody you may interact with once a year, even if you are on a customer advisory board you’re talking to a representative of a larger organization you don’t know how much they are really telling you about how people are adopting the technology behind the wall of that organization. And that is all critical to know and clearly was part of the sources of failure that lead to the Standish statistics, so that’s why I thought they were so boring, not just because we kept seeing the same numbers but everyone I think accepted them too readily.


5. You also mentioned Agile in your talk and that you're finding Agile organizations still not really necessarily connecting with their customers frequently. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Sure. As I was saying earlier there is really nothing in Agile that really compels you to understand your customer better, it’s not a formula for reaching into the soul of the customer and pulling out what it is that they want from you, it’s a way to change the way the people work, to change the cadence, it’s a change of some operating principles, it’s not necessarily going to automatically lead to a better satisfaction on the part of the customer, it creates the potential for it, but it doesn’t make it happen automatically. And that’s where I think serious games are really a complement, is that you can both be more adaptive, you can put in feedback loops with serious games, other things that then allow you to really take the full potential of Agile in a way that just having short iterations and a Scrum master and other paraphernalia of Agile doesn’t necessarily deliver to you.

Todd: You were talking about serious games.


Todd: Obviously, the conversation is around innovation games, so maybe differentiate the difference between serious games and innovation games.

So, this is a good sign of how early we are in the innovation process that we can’t come up with a consistent set of names. Serious games, I am using that as an umbrella term for game like activities that one uses in a serious fashion at work, in government, in other walks of life. Innovation games are a particular type, so too is gamification, so too are computer based simulations, these are all games but they are a different type in each case, they are really well suited for different outcomes, so it’s an exciting time to be talking about serious games because there are all these different species of them, but it’s a little bit muddled right now because people are just discovering them, which one is the right one for whatever problem it is that they are trying to solve.


6. Before we go on I will also ask you about innovation games, where does innovation games fit in amongst the other ones there and how do they differ?

Innovation games certainly they are designed to be short in duration, they are designed to have an outcome, there is not necessarily a winner but there is an outcome, there are rules that people are following but it’s not certainly a simulation, it doesn’t attempt to be, it’s not attempting to actually come to a particular outcome, but there are other games like adver-games that you use to get an marketing message across, two people playing games, there are other games that have a political overtone to them, Dying in Darfur was a famous one, it was trying to raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. There is a particular outcome here, you are shooting for with those games. In the case of innovation games there’s not a particular outcome, you are just trying to get people to behave, to think, to talk differently about their work in the short burst, the short duration of the game. If you say “hey, rather than sitting around a conference room table talking about what the core of the product is, let’s take a box, we’ll call it product box, we’ll scrawl on it what the essential value proposition is, we’ll try to figure out what it is that is going to make this attractive enough for someone to reach for”, it’s an alternative to the usual way that people were talking about core value proposition, minimum viable product, etc., etc.


7. Speaking of changing the language, you put out something you called the adoption challenge. So, what is the adoption challenge?

That’s the problem all innovators face, in that it’s easy to come up with an interesting idea, it’s another thing to go through all the steps necessary to eventually deliver it to somebody who sees value and who is willing to embrace it. And that’s where I would say that the software industry has had some serious challenges. The majority of software industry has been around invention and honing that, we are now seeing much more focus on the adoption part because people’s business models depend on it, because of competition, because clearly social media companies have shown as soon as you get to somebody using something quickly there is a value to that even though you don’t necessarily monetize it and make it look like in the case of Twitter. In that sense then adoption is a business good that the software industry certainly is discovering, other industries certainly also discovered it by now and have had their growing pains and learning to master it, and I think that’s where we are with software right now.


8. One of the other things you talked about and you mentioned it earlier was changing the conversation. Why does the conversation need to be changed, what was not sufficient about the preexisting?

Well, I will give you a couple of anecdotes I think that best illustrate that. So, at one company where I worked we had our customer advisory board meetings and they only happened once a year and that was just long enough for us to have to apologize for having ignored what we heard from the customers the last time and then we spent the rest of the time in the meeting trying to convince them that this time it's going to be different. So, in that sense we are not having a good conversation with the customers. In talking to the customers often I got the strong feeling, this is a special problem I think in B2B because of the complexity of what’s going on behind the scenes, that I really wasn’t getting necessarily a fair representation of what the customer even wanted. I was talking to one person who was part of a larger organization and maybe that person represented one department among many who were going to be adopting the software, maybe I was talking to somebody who did a good or bad job with explaining what their department or the larger organization was necessarily looking for.

There are all sorts of problems in that communication and I was dying for ways to shortcut the conversation to get to what was essential, to make it a little bit more honest at times because there was a little bit of sense of negotiation going on over what they really wanted versus padding the estimate a little bit with things they wouldn’t necessarily see as important but then they would get some percentage they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Those were all problems that I wanted to get past quickly and really get into an honest discussion and also to help the customer articulate him or herself better. Because it’s true that software companies sometimes can be indifferent to what the customers are saying, but there is also definitely true that the customers are having a hard time explaining themselves. For example, the traditional language has been features and you get a request in for a particular enhancement, it’s phrased as a feature and one of the first questions everybody asks is what are they actually trying to do with the software? You’re telling me you need a button here but I don’t understand why, is there a different way to achieve the same outcome whatever it is? That’s the conversation you want to get into. That’s another thing I think serious games help with.


9. With using innovation games, in particular serious games, if you are an organization that’s been say doing requirements, also kind of gathering in that way, how do you introduce something like that and make that change into an organization?

It’s I think not that hard, the games themselves are simple. If you look at Luke Hohmann’s book about innovation games, the games themselves they are trivial to learn. The real trick is knowing how to introduce them into the requirements process or whatever the process is and also preparing for them. The one source of failure I have often seen is when people dove in without context, say “hey, let’s play this game”, they weren’t necessarily ready to play it and it went south pretty fast. Better to say “here is a technique”, don’t even mention game necessarily, “here is a technique we are going to have to get better customer insights” and then spend your time prior to that doing a play test of it, running through what the session is going to be like, trying to anticipate whatever problems there are, rehearsing how you are going to explain the game to people, that’s a big key to success, I think that’s really where introducing it. It doesn’t depend on doing the labors of Hercules, but a little extra effort is needed.

Todd: You have a new site that you’ve put out, as you described is very bare minimum, so tell us a little bit about that, give us the overview of that and why you’ve got that site.

Yes. So, since this is innovation I think we can definitely learn from the history of other innovations where to go past the initial phase of the people who were pioneering it to when it starts to get picked up by the early adopters and then other people, you need to be able to tell stories that explain what the innovation is and what the value is going to be to someone like me, so what I am looking to do then is to add, get enough of these success stories together where anybody who has a little bit of an inkling in serious games wants to learn more can instantly find someone like them, find the problem they are facing and then connect quickly to what the solution is going to be with an innovation game or other kind of serious game. And the learning process I think is always better with a story to tell, to have brief stories, to the point about here’s who did it, here’s how they were successful, here’s the outcome that you can point to that is definitely beneficial to them. But also to help explain the differences between these games because it’s great to have all of them but at the same time they are different and you don’t want to go running after a simulation when you really need an innovation game.


10. There have been other sites that have aggregated games like TastyCupcakes and ones like that, so how does this one different from those ones?

I am trying to be first of all ecumenical about them, some of the other sites are really focused on a particular kind of game and I really do see it important to just talk about the success stories for starters. I mean there are lots of other things you can do for the site, eventually I would like to do them, but for the very beginning this is just about telling the success story, it’s really focused on making sure the serious games get adopted and this being the potential catalyst for that.


11. You also mentioned in your talk, you had a slide with all the people whose stories you wanted to tell, some of the stories you’ve got so far, what sort of companies and organizations that are using them?

In the talk I talked a little bit about BuyerZone who was trying to, as the result of doing a rewrite of a web based application, economize on the features, they wouldn’t be able to implement everything right away so what was the minimum viable product there, in which they used product box in order to help define that. Certainly tomorrow we’ve got the latest City of San Jose session where we are using serious games in a governmental setting to engage people with their local government in a new way and in a way that allows them to participate in real decision making, not just stating your preferences but see what the tradeoffs are among different budgetary options and talking to each other about what sort of city they want to see result from that and this is the third time they are doing it so I think that’s a good sign of how successful they think it’s been to do these kinds of exercises. The other one that I would probably mention is Oracle, their use of innovation games in order to connect with customers better, EFI are using it as a tool for retrospection, going back and reassessing how well we did, what mistakes did we make along the way, what do we need to change, doing it in a way that depersonalizes a lot and gets to the heart of whatever the success or failure is fairly quickly through these mechanisms. And there are plenty of others and the points of doing the site is to impress people with the number of these success stories if they were known, if they were easily accessible that I really think we would see serious games in general, innovation games in particular, take off.


12. You also mentioned that this particular conference of Innovation Games Summit was very similar to you to some of the early Agile conferences, in what way and where do you see it going from here?

This was really I felt like a practitioners’ conference. The sessions were designed around telling people their stories, getting tips along the way, listen to one by Reed Elsevier earlier today where they talked about some of the techniques that they did to refine their ability to make games like Speedboat or buy a feature more successful and I think that that’s also really what the Agile movement did, was to get quickly into the pragmatic elements of what it took to make Agile successful. Yes, you had the big philosophical discussions also, but I think the movement succeeded because the people who coalesced around it, formed a community, took careful note of what was working, what wasn’t, stayed focused on the pragmatic elements and really knew how to then communicate something to people who had a problem about a potential solution in a really crisp and compelling way and I think that one of the important outcomes is this we hear about the stories that we need to tell our organizations to convince them about the value of serious games and rehearsing that for when we go home and have that conversation.


13. And so, where do you think innovation games and serious games, where do you see them going from here and what sort of challenges do you think it might see going forward?

I think I mentioned the confusion of games is one challenge, I think also games at scale is also going to be a heavy demand for, if you are for example using games for customer insight you don’t want to just run it with a few customers, you want to be able to do it whenever you want at a scale of thousands of customers maybe, I think that is easily solved, having web based versions of the games as Innovation Games, the company, does, it’s an easy solution to that, but then it means that people have to not just provide the games but also provide some advice about how to use the games, which games to use in conjunction with one another, ok we get a list of ideas from playing one game and then we prioritize them with another game but that is something people will have to figure out or other non-game activities to complement them. I think that is another part of the challenge, putting together a tool kit of games and other techniques, but again I don’t think that’s a hard one, I think it’s easy to figure out as anything from software development to a management consultant what might be a good mixture of games and other techniques.


14. So, if somebody wanted to submit stories for, how do they go by doing that?

Go to the site, drop me an email from there at and we’ll talk about it. Again, we are not looking for long long success stories, pithy is good, I think that’s what people wanted here and can follow up and find more information about it, but I would be very grateful for anybody who is willing to spend the time to submit something or tell us and have us write it up quickly.

Todd: Alright, well we’re looking forward to seeing you at the budget games tomorrow. Thank you very much.

Me too.

Apr 24, 2013