There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

Team Building Game

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Over the years I have been asked to lead a variety of offsites for teams. Sometimes the goal has been to lead a process re-engineering effort, sometimes to bring a new team together, and sometimes just to work on improving morale. As a participant in these kinds of offsites before I knew I liked some of the exercises that were used, but disliked most of them. I believed, as a game designer, I could build a better set of exercises. This post is about one specific game I have used many times very successfully.
Its best to do this at the very start of a session; its a good warmup to a longer day of working together. I have introduced it in the past by telling folks that I am going to take advantage of having so many folks together to playtest a new party game I have been working on. In other words, I make no effort to connect the game we are about to play to the task at hand – I don’t even call it a warmup exercise, if there were an agenda this would not be on it, etc.
I describe the game this way: “I am going to pass out a deck of cards, face down, more or less evenly to each person in the room. Its not important that everyone have the same number, so don’t worry too much about that (some people will complain its not fair – but I assure them it doesn’t matter). The goal of the game is to be the first person or group to complete a full suit of cards. The game is played by openly trading with anyone in the room, at whatever trading terms both parties agree to.”
Thats it – thats all the players need to know to play the game. Once I answer any questions folks have I tell them we will play for at most 10 minutes (so people have a time pressure) then start the game.
Usually people form into groups, and start trading amongst themselves. Because the game has set up that there will be a ‘winner’ people assume that there also have to be ‘losers’, so the trading is often pretty serious (especially if the group are themselves gamers). Beware the spoiler who just wants to give their cards away, especially if they do it too early on – if the game ends too quickly the lesson doesn’t come through as well.
Its unlikely someone will win within the first few minutes, but even if they do thats okay. Even if someone has not won within a few minutes you can call the game over, and lead the following discussion.
If there is a winner, congratulate them – its not easy to collect all 13 cards in a given suit. Even if its a group of folks, make them feel good because the won the game.
Whether there was a winner or not, lead the conversation by asking everyone if they assumed there had to be losers. Its a common assumption, that games have winners and therefore losers. But there are also games where everyone wins. When you redefine what you are doing in way that puts everyone in the room (or team, or organization, or company) on the same team, then winning means everyone wins – which I believe is clearly better than a world where folks in the room have to beat other folks in the room.
Its at about this time that folks realize this may have been a setup – this really wasn’t a playtesting session. In fact, they are learning an Important Lesson.
Ask folks why they kept their cards to themselves – as its very likely that everyone picked up their cards and fanned them out as if they were playing a card game, holding their cards so only they could see them. People did this because they thought it was a game that had winners and losers. In fact, had everyone shared their cards from the start the game would have been much easier to play (maybe not as much fun, but surely a quicker path to success). Taking this a step further, instead of forming sub-groups, had everyone just dropped their cards, and declared themselves all part of the same team, they would have all the won game (quicker than the other method of playing the game).
Now is when I drop the punch line – that by holding your cards close to your chest, only sharing little tidbits with certain people, you might find a way to win the game. But, if you share your cards, openly and with everyone, then you will win the game, and so will everyone else. Work is a lot like this – its possible to be successful by hoarding information and knowledge, sharing it only when it can benefit yourself; but its a much cleaner and more efficient way to win by having great transparency and putting the group’s needs ahead of your own.
Its a bit corny – but ulitmately I believe in the lesson.

Written by joshuahoward

October 27, 2008 at 9:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. That’s a cool game. I was wondering initially why anyone would be willing to trade their cards (would people get more than 1 card when the cards are initially dealt out?)…but the final solution is so much simpler.
    I think it’d be difficult for everyone to realize the final solution on their own…unless there is one person who brings up the point and manages to convince everyone.


    April 9, 2009 at 9:19 pm

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