Game Design is Necessary

Games are about, among other things, freedom. To design a game is to create a system in which people are free — free to play, free to explore, free to excel. The boundaries — rules, game board, etc. — define the space of freedom.

Those who are familiar with governance best practice (for example the Carver system of corporate governance, also known as “governance by policy”, or the sociocratic system of governance) will recognize the idea of a bounded space in which players are free to act to accomplish their shared goals.  

The value of freedom in an organization cannot be overstated. People require clear boundaries, but when the boundaries are completely prescriptive — when there is no room for experimentation or improvisation or learning in one’s work — people begin to suffocate and die.  

The past twenty years of research into the phenomenon of Flow illustrates this point well.  As pioneering researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has shown, people thrive in environments where they experience the right balance between challenges and their skills. 

This chart illustrates that balance. Where people must bring their best-developed skills to bear on significant challenges, they enjoy peak experiences in the ‘flow state’, where the sense of time falls away and deep fulfillment occurs. When challenges begin to outstrip a player’s skills, that person moves first into arousal, then into anxiety. When skill outstrips the challenge, a player moves into control, then relaxation.  If neither challenge nor skill is high, the player experiences worry, apathy, and boredom.  This is true in games, and in the workplace.

a73111b9614f058550cfe2157e38cad7
(Thanks to Wikipedia contributer Oliver Beaton for this chart).

In order to confront meaningful challenges, a player must be free to experiment and apply skill to meaningful choices.  The art of game design is, in part, the art of defining meaningful choices and challenges in a way that matches players’ skills.  For that reason, we know that game design is essential to the Genius Organization: the task of drawing out the genius of employees and customers requires us to consider the games that will leave them most creatively alive, and to set up the rules so they are free to face those challenges at the appropriate time.

Beyond the Learning Organization

We face a dramatic challenge. We are changing our climate and driving species to extinction on a scale similar to the asteroid and/or volcanic eruption that destroyed the dinosaurs. We struggle with social inequality (from slavery to the prison industry to our failure to invest in poor youth), theft of our cultural commons (theft both legal and illegal), and the tyranny of mass surveillance and robotic war. Our global governance systems pit one nation against another, one social class against another, and all against the very ecology on which we depend for life and livelihood. Learning organizations are necessary, but getting better at capitalism — improving our ability to extract value for shareholders — is not enough. Humanity and the biosphere — what we think of as ‘the world’ — needs more than ‘learning organizations’ at this point in history. We need radical change. We need Genius Organizations.

We are indebted to Peter Senge and his collaborators for the concept of the learning organization.  That concept, and the various practices shared through books such as The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, have been constant guides through our  professional lives.  For those reasons, people who hear the phrase “Genius Organization” may think we simply mean “learning organization, re-branded”.  It is true that every Genius Organization must be a learning organization, but it must be a very specific kind of learning organization — perhaps what every learning organization should be.

Defining the Genius Organization
A “Genius Organization” is an organization which serves a community both by cultivating the community’s genius and by delivering a particular set of products the community values.

We understand the “genius” of a community to be a combination of special resources (tools, location, history, etc.), useful complexity (knowledge, social organization, social diversity, biodiversity, etc.) and integrity (mutually beneficial connectedness within the community and with its environment).  A community’s genius allows it to produce value in a way that no other community can.

A Genius Organization must be able to maintain a long-term commitment to delivering human development that also benefits the ecologies on which people depend, and must deliver on that commitment with ever more skill over time. A Genius Organization is what Arie de Geus would call a “living company”.

When we use the word “community”, we include the physically co-located communities of neighborhood, village, and watershed, the virtual communities of social networks, the temporary communities of festivals and gatherings, and the broader extensions of these meanings to cities, regions, industry sectors, social classes, psychographic and demographic units.  The important thing is that a community must in some way be self-organizing — “teenagers” are not a community, but “teenagers that go to Beatles concerts” were a community, in the way we use the term.  “Baby boomers that went to Beatles concerts and still love the Beatles today” are a community in the way we mean it, because that group of people accesses the same media and shares an “imagined territory”.  Most of the communities served by Genius Organizations today are imagined communities, in the sense Benedict Anderson used when coining the phrase.  In other words, the people do not all know each other, but they relate to the same media and the same stories about a shared “imaginary territory” — an imaginary territory which may also be physically real, like the physical territory controlled by the United States of America, or which may be virtual or temporary, like the performances of a pop music act or the playspace of an online game.

The Genius Organization provides a kind of servant leadership to its community by enabling that community to develop and transform, in addition to providing whatever other products it may offer.  In fact, those “other products” are usually the means by which the genius organization delivers the transformation.  CSR (“corporate social responsibility”) is usually a separate functional silo within large companies; it makes grants to deserving charities.  While making grants to charity is a desirable thing, a Genius Organization requires CSR (like all functions) to be integrated in the product-based divisions of the organization. Corporate social responsibility is a practice throughout a Genius Organization, and results in strategic benefits that disconnect charitable grants cannot.

Required Ingredients
Every Genius Organization must have certain qualities or practices in order to reliably deliver the servant leadership that makes it a Genius Organization.

In order to understand its community and serve it effectively, the Genius Organization must be a Lean Enterprise (or at least a Lean organization) — it must understand what its customers value, and take responsibility for the whole value chain involved in delivering value to its customers.

A Genius Organization must understand its product in terms of the customer’s experience, and it must bring the different elements of customer experience together into a guided transformation.  This requires an understanding of personal, organizational, and community development and transformation.  At a minimum, this means that the Genius Organization implements the five disciplines of the learning organization. Most Genius Organizations will benefit from practice of user-centered design, lean or agile product development, and personal transformation of the kind documented in ‘Presencing’ by Senge et al. or taught by the Hendricks Institute.

Finally, the Genius Organization must have the structures, processes, and skills necessary for it to govern and manage itself in a deeply participatory manner. If the governance structure is not strongly participatory, there will be a tendency over time for an influential group in the company (such as management) to enrich itself at the expense of the other stakeholders (e.g. shareholders, other workers, and the human and biotic communities where the company does business).  Cautionary tales abound — such as the example of WireMold, once an exemplary Lean company, which was sold and placed under management that was not committed to Lean, resulting in the evaporation of a decade’s devotion to learning and excellence. Either the Genius Organization uses a management and governance structure such as Sociocracy, or it will endure great risks with each new owner and each new generation of management.

Progress on the Journey
When a company is functioning as a Genius Organization, that is the beginning of a journey which may continue for centuries.  I suggest that, as a leader, you track your ongoing success on at least these measures: the productivity of your colleagues, the wellbeing of colleagues, trading partners, and ecosystems where you operate, customer satisfaction, and the resilience of your communities.

To truly transform our world for the better, we must go beyond the learning organization.  Genius organisations learn constantly, but they intentionally serve their communities in very particular ways and they are structured to ensure that they continue to serve into the indefinite future.

What is Genius?

This is the first of a series of posts on genius, and genius organizations. Enjoy!

At Genius Engine we define genius as “the ability to create remarkable value”.

We say that genius is an ability to create value, because we are not interested in an abstract definition that ignores the context of a person’s or group’s genius.  Value is always valuable to someone in particular.  We use the word “remarkable” because we want to express that genius is something exceptional or beyond the norm — but again, we know that it is beyond the norm because people perceive it as specially valuable, not because it meets an abstract test about which few people care. Genius matters — if it does not matter, it is not genius.

Historically, people have understood genius to be a fortunate spirit (giving good luck to a place, a family, or a person); more recently genius has been seen as a personal quality — a particular sort of talent, even a measurable level of general intelligence that is produced by some combination of genes and environment. There has been a shift from looking at genius as something external, collective, and mysterious, to something internal, individual, and measurable.  By talking about the ability to produce remarkable value, we keep the measurable aspect of modern ways of talking about genius, but we allow ourselves to focus on both individual and collective, internal and external, qualities of genius.

Some scholars still think of genius as a collective trait. Keith Sawyer makes a clear argument (which is consistent with the pioneering work of historians and sociologists of science such as Thomas Kuhn and Bruno Latour) that every invention is the result of a wide network of previous work, of critics and collaborators, of patrons and customers.  The airplane could not be invented without certain materials, certain engine innovations, certain scientific disciplines, and the Wright brothers are known as the inventors of powered flight not only because of their insights but also because of their embodied skills as bicycle mechanics, hackers who were very familiar with reworking vehicle technology by hand, and because of their ability to popularize their work — which allowed them to develop positive relationships with a curious world.

Certain qualities allow individuals and groups to create remarkable value. We look at genius as having three primary drivers: special resources, useful complexity, and integrity. Special resources includes internal resources such as genetics, external resource such as access to the right tools, and personal history which is both internal and external. Useful complexity includes individual types of complexity — mental and emotional — as well as collective types such as social complexity and genetic diversity. We define integrity as the mutually beneficial connectedness within a living system (person, organization, or community), and between that system (the person, organization, or community) and its environment.

One of the benefits in looking at genius in this way is that we can see potential strategies for increasing the genius of a person or a group.  One might look at a person’s ability to create value, and think “this person is very detail oriented, and enjoys logical puzzles — if only this person could use better tools, they might be able to produce some amazing electronics”.  That would be an approach to enhancing genius using special resources.  One might also look at that person and think, “I wonder if they have learned about cybernetics?” By adding the cognitive complexity of cybernetics to the person’s repertoire, that person might be able to create more valuable electronic craft-pieces.  Lastly, we might address the person’s integrity — “how is this person relating to himself and his colleagues? Could he take a stand more often? Could he love himself as he is? How could we support him in developing his integrity?”  Any one of these approaches might yield a significant increase in this person’s ability to produce value.

When we ask these questions over and over, for ourselves, our colleagues, our organizations and our communities, we begin organizing ourselves for genius.  This is the path to the Genius Organization.

I Love Games – especially games that are great businesses, too

Cross posted from the DecisionLab.org.uk blog.

I love games.  Jane McGonigal gave a TED talk on her inspired plan to get us all playing socially transformative games — brilliant — but as she so clearly describes, the idea is not new (watch her talk for the stunning and archaeologically supported premise that the Roman Empire was founded by gamers).  But her ideas are also not new for those on the cutting edge of 21st-century business.  Jack Stack wrote Great Game of Business about a 1980s employee-buyout of an American manufacturing firm that has since prospered due to what Stack describes as ongoing game play.  Michael Gerber’s E-myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It is a classic, in which he describes exactly how small business success depends on giving employees and customers a “game worth playing”.  And one of my favorites, Pine and Gilmore’s The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage is a clear and comprehensive description of how to craft the game worlds in which we play.

Businesses that don’t work suffer from bad game design.  From this perspective, cash flow is a symptom, a sign that people are engaged in transformative play, creating value together, passionately recruiting new players — or that they are struggling to get by in a zero-sum game where the winners don’t share.

I was delighted when I realized that the best system I’ve found for organizational design, governance and management (whoa! that’s a lot already!) is actually a gaming system.  In this post, I’ll address one portion of that system in particular — the requirement that each individual and each team (as well as the organization as a whole) have a vision, a mission, a set of aims, a domain and policies.  I’ll explain here how each of these elements is like the elements of other game systems with which you may be familiar.

The vision is a description of the winning conditions.  In chess, it is when you have placed your opponent’s king in check-mate.  In more immersive games (online or offline role-playing games, for example) the winning conditions may be more flexible — completing the chronicles of a particular set of characters, saving the world from a particular villain, or solving the full set of puzzles faced by the players.  In business, a good vision statement gives players an ultimate goal that can remain viable throughout the life of the community — something that can never be fully achieved, but is always worth striving for.

The mission describes broadly what will happen during the game — what the players will be doing.  In chess, your mission might be to “take pieces and control territory.”  In role-playing games, the players’ mission is often “take on the role of a heroic character, solve problems, and have fun.”  As I mentioned previously, a sociocratic business is structured with missions for the org as a whole, each team, and each role (and a person may play several roles).  The individual role mission might look a lot like that in a role-playing game…

Aims are not just specific goals — they describe an exchange that takes place.  The aims are how you score!  In chess you offer your opponents an attractive but disadvantageous series of trades in pieces and board location.  Each piece you capture is considered to be worth a certain number of points.  In role-playing games, players score by telling good stories, role-playing well and achieving in-game objectives (which depend on the game, but might include completing quests or killing monsters).  In most role-playing games, the storyteller and other players reward each other with points for doing those things.  In business, an aim may be as simple as “farm fresh eggs, $2.99″.  It is an offer in exchange for money (the “points” we play for), ideally phrased to emphasize what makes the offer unique, and put in language the customer will understand.  As a player, I will be rewarded according to how many eggs I sell, how many chess pieces I capture, or how fun the story is that I create with my fellow players.

Domain, in chess, is the board and pieces.  In a role-playing game, the domain is the imagined world the players share, and the tools — books, dice, paper & pencils — that are used to play.  In a business team, it is the area of the team’s responsibility and authority — a web site, for example, or a work place, and possibly a budget and set of clients as well.  In the language of Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design, (another book I strongly recommend) it is the “game space”.

Policies are the rules.  This is probably the easiest element to understand.  Policies tell us how we work toward our Vision by doing our Mission by accomplishing Aims in our Domain.  The rules in board games are often written, and brief enough for everyone to remember them all.  Not a bad idea!  In computer games, rules can be much more complex because the computer remembers them for us (and following them is easy).  This is key — keep your policies as simple as possible!  Remembering the rules can take energy you would otherwise use to accomplish your Aim.

So you see that sociocratic business design is in fact a game design system!  If you want to use the remarkable store of work on game design and business design, I suggest you do it through a sociocratic context.  I will publish more posts on this subject in the future.

The Gamification Bubble

Cross posted from the DecisionLab.org.uk blog.

People are talking a lot about using games to drive business. Do people really feel overwhelmingly attracted to badges and leaderboards?

Well, no. We want many things, and little digital badges perhaps least.  We want the things the badges represent, if we want the badges at all.  Business-people that don’t understand the difference will put badges and leaderboards on their websites, call it gamification, get capital to grow (from internal or external investors) and then lose it all.  Because yet again, people will have mistaken badges (derivatives, dot.com stocks, tulips) for value.  Want to skip the bubble? Read on.

Businesses around the world have begun to pay attention to innovators like FourSquare (and the Girl Scouts!) who offer tokens that have previously motivated players of numerous games from Galaga to World of Warcraft — badges of achievement and a place on a highly-visible ranked list.  But even those games that rely heavily on these devices are not only about badges and leaderboards.  FourSquare is fun because you are having a conversation with your friends and a competition with all comers.  The badges and leaderboards are just a mechanism of interaction, a medium — like currency.

The key to brilliant game design is to make every element of the game align.  Player motivation, the game space and rewarding experiences, player actions and real world outcomes — when these line up, and anything that can interfere with this core reinforcing spiral of positive value is trimmed away, you have a brilliant game.  If that game happens to be a business? Now you’re making money. (Not that money is necessarily the reason you play the game of business, of course — check out Your Money or Your Life or anything by Tim Ferriss for support in looking at that).

Let’s talk about player motivation.  My definition of “a game” is: “a structured space for the pleasurable exploration of a theme.”  One core piece of a player’s motivation is: what themes do they want to explore?  If they find status and competition interesting, then a leaderboard might be just the thing.  Or maybe they want to explore collaboration? In that case they might prefer to see a gallery of creative work they have created with people, ranked by recency or by how much others appreciate them (but not necessarily ranked against other people).  The number of themes you can focus on is limited only by your imagination.  Think about the music you like to listen to, the movies you like to watch, the books you like to read.  All of these stories are ways of playing with themes.

Chances are, people come to your business to explore themes, too.  Marketing folks know this well (although the sex-and-anxiety-themed froth that pervades so many media shows a certain lack of daring).  Great brands and great businesses already offer customers meaningful games built around archetypal themes.  (Check out The Hero and The Outlaw for more on archetypal themes in business).

To deal with questions of motivation, you must be clear about what themes you want to offer your players for exploration.  The people who come to your game will be people who want to explore those themes.  If you are building a game around your motorcycle sales network, you may find that the themes of risk, adventure, and tribe are more attractive than themes of order or simplicity (both of which might be better for a bank or home decor business).  When you have your themes down, try to think of a few sample cues, or ways that people might experience your themes in the context of your business-game.  How does someone experience tribe?  Do they see people’s faces?  Do they know where they are?  Do they share something important?  The cues will be important later in our game creation process.

After you have recorded Themes and Cues, give your attention to what you actually want to happen as a result of people playing the game.  This is your business, remember?  Do you want people to give you money?  Write that down.  Perhaps you want people to take pictures or write articles that feature your motorcycles, and post them online.  Perhaps you want them to get stories into newspapers or onto major blogs.  Maybe you want them to bring their friends into your showrooms.  Think about the specific real-world actions you want them to take, and the specific outcomes (in your business, or in the rest of the world) that you want to see as a result.  Another example might be that you want to get resources for a charity you care about.  Great!  Hopefully, you can begin to see some connection between the themes you have identified and the actions and outcomes you have now listed — and can see how the actions might lead to the outcomes.

Next, you need to consider experience.  The core experience, of course, will be “exploration of your theme”.  But what does that actually feel like?  Think about some rewarding experiences you have had exploring that theme — or experiences you wish you could have had.  You have already begun this process by writing down cues that relate to your theme.  Now go a bit further.  Create a bigger list of experiences you value around the theme, and if any jump out at you (“YES! THIS!”) then put a star on them or something.

Last in our brainstorming process comes imagining the gamespace.  The game space can be anything or anywhere.  For the game of Monopoly, the gamespace is the board, the pieces, the cards and dice — but it also includes the room where the players play the game (living room? kitchen table? cafe?).  And does the game include negotiating when to play?  Talking about the games you’ve played before?  Because now the gamespace includes all the real and virtual places those negotiations and conversations take place.  Consider the gamespaces where your players might be arranging and conducting the games by which they explore your themes.  Don’t get too stuck on figuring it out though — for now, you might want to write down something like “our motorcycle club website” or “our showroom” or “the cell phone they use when they are on their bike, halfway to the Grand Canyon”.

Now you are ready to put it all together.  This is a bit of a game in itself, and you can play it however you like.  One way I find useful is to physically write all of the things I’ve brainstormed onto cards, or cut up the papers where I’ve written them down, and try mixing and matching them in different configurations.  What kind of game would include the themes of Tribe and Adventure, the action of “telling a story online”, the outcome of “making the news”, and the game space of “cell phone” and “our showroom”?  Perhaps they can take cell phone pictures of their motorcycle journey, and they get posted on the wall of the motorcycle showroom as well as shared with all the people in their usergroup (which we will call a Club or maybe even a Tribe).  Now we can think about an app to automate the process, maybe some kind of ranking or tagging filter that would make sure obscene pictures don’t go up on the showroom wall… maybe they get attached to a map, and a viewer alternates top-down views of a dotted red line proceeding across the landscape with a view of the pictures they took.  Maybe everyone else in their Club could have their pictures attached to the same slideshow — but wait, it’s not a slideshow, it’s a Ride.  You share the Ride in the real world, then you share it with the rest of the Club online, then with anyone who comes into the showroom.  Hmm. This might not get a lot of news stories, but I bet it keeps people riding your motorcycles!  And we have only invented our first game; there are probably many more we can create with the elements we have before us.

Once you have invented a set of games, then you can tweak them for increasing business value.  I suggest you use an Agile or Lean approach and start with a very lightweight prototype — even just a story like I just told you — to find out whether people get excited.  For a good process, check out the work of Steve Blank and the other Lean Startup folks.  Unless you have tremendously compelling reasons, do one at a time, starting with the one that can produce significant business value soonest.

If you try out what I suggest here, I recommend you also read my earlier post on designing a business as a game, and read some of the resources I link to there — especially Jesse Schell’s Art of Game Design.  In my twenty-five years of interest in designing great games, it is the best book I have found on the subject.

Of course, I cannot guarantee that your games will help your business.  Perhaps this process will not work for you.  I can guarantee, however, that posting achievement badges on your website without finding a connection to the underlying themes, motivations, experiences, and real world actions and outcomes you seek will be a waste of your time.  It will be a waste of money.  And a lot of people will get excited about how amazing this all is before they give it up in disgust, while the people who have been designing real games, business games that genuinely serve people’s deep needs, will be making plenty of money and doing what they really care about — exploring the themes that matter most to them.