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.

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