Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Revisiting the HBR 2002 paper "Everything I Know about Business I Learned from Monopoly"

Originally published by Harvard Business Review in 2002, "Everything I Know About Business I Learned from Monopoly" by Phil Orbanes provides great insights for all working in HR/L&D.  I recently rediscovered this paper in my files.

Orbanes is cited as "one of the world's foremost board-game designers". To be successful he needs to understand what makes people want to compete - and win.  

I see clear parallels with a people-manager needing to understand what makes their direct reports want to be engaged and committed to the organisation's mission.

Orbanes presents six principles of "Great Game Design"
  • Make the rules simple and unambiguous
  • Don't frustrate the casual player
  • Establish a rhythm
  • Focus on what is happening off the board
  • Give 'em chances to come from behind
  • Provide outlets for latent talents

Make the rules simple and unambiguous
"people can [also] find a game bewildering if the aren't given a sound structure and clear guidance"

So, while from an L&D perspective the use of simulations in training can help cut through real life complexity, this also hints that the inconsistency and unpredictability of the workplace needs to be mitigated where possible.  

I see strong links here to a central role of leadership - namely defining the vision & mission of the organisation/team and communicating to reinforce understanding.  From an HR perspective, this also needs to be supported by ensuring employees have a good understanding of policies/processes & the wider psychological contract.  

Don't frustrate the casual player
"if a game is to last ... it must appeal to a critical mass of casual players who will rapidly comprehend and enjoy playing it"

I'd suggest this insight can be related to the issues of information overload in the modern workplace.  Just as there is a wealth of entertainment options competing for an individual's leisure time, employees need to navigate conflicting priorities.  

When an organisation changes its strategy (i.e. game), mass communication is needed, and it needs to be kept simple !  To 'enjoy playing it' I'd suggest aiming to involve employees in collectively working out the details of the change.  I see a great role for Enterprise 2.0 tools in achieving these aims.  Podcasts help focus leaders on keeping communications short and to the point, Blogs provide a level of access & interaction with senior management that was previously only enjoyed by HQ staff.

Establish a rhythm
"If a game paces itself effectively, people will instinctively know which phase they are in.  If the pace doesn't build, its not so much of a game."

Orbanes makes his own connections to the workplace: "Is there an analogy for business to the beginning, middle, and end rhythm in games ? I think so. A good manager might engineer these types of shifts over the course of a critical project - and be prepared for different moods and levels of motivations from people".   I'd certainly agree that building 'Interpersonal Skills' is a powerful lever for enhancing Leadership.

For HR, I also see the importance of guiding an annual cycle of managing performance - with well-understood phases of goal setting, feedback and reward. 

Focus on what is happening off the board
"a well-designed game makes people feel better afterwards - and for many players, that's due to the larger social experience, of which the game is only the core activity"

Gallup recognise the importance of having 'a best friend at work', if employees are to be highly engaged.  Also, as the HBR paper states "... a manager must consider people's work:life balance". 

I see HR taking a lead in this area: championing the benefits of flexible working etc. 

Give 'em chances to come from behind
"One of the trickiest aspects of game design is achieving just the right balance of skill and luck"

This raises the issue of what role is there for 'luck' in the workplace.  Reward & recognition mechanisms need to be fair and consistent (i.e. driven by acknowledging the outcomes achieved from skill) if they are to motivate rather than demotivate others.  Equally, good performance management processes should provide reasonable support to help struggling employees turnaround poor performance, with manager setting clear, attainable goals for improvement.

But, just as a Monopoly 'Community Chest' card can introduce a new, improved situation for a player, I see the need to invest in both the predictable future (e.g. grooming high potentials for the next level of leadership)  and the unpredictable (e.g. encouraging 'skunk works', by expecting 10% of an employees effort to be directed towards bottom-up projects).

Provide outlets for latent talents
"great games and great workplaces, also offer outlets for skills that people would like to express but don't use during their normal routines"

Orbanes also highlights that "Chess and Bridge had their heyday in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s when wide-ranging opportunities to exercise intellectual powers or gain intellectual stimulation on the job simply did not exist".

In the workplace there is an increasing trend for multiple careers.  As individuals' interests  and circumstances change over time, organisations can capitalise on this if they provide outlets such as secondments.  I'd also see the role of L&D/HR as helping employees better manage their own career development.  They can then effectively partner with the organisation on creating appropriate outlets for their skills and interest.

No doubt I've only scratched the surface of the links that can be drawn between 'making engaging board-games' and 'engaging employees by the board'.  Please share other workplace insights generated from this introduction to the principles of board-game design   

FYI: The HBR article also makes comment on the use of game-playing to build teams:
"at very least an afternoon of playing games builds relationships among workers and increases the social capital within an organisation..."

PS: in the current economic turmoil it would be interesting to consider what 'new rules' Waddingtons should add to their board-game .... or was it great insight that while the waterworks, the electric company & the railways stations could all be privately held, the bank is centrally managed ?!