There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

Goals and Objectives as Game Design

with 2 comments

Game designers determine a set of rules for a game, giving the players the tools they need to play the game, to enjoy the game, and if they play just right, win the game. Carefully crafted rules accomplish all of this without getting in the way of the players. When presented with well crafted rules players have appropriate expectations about the experience the game will deliver. Even well written rules can’t force someone to have fun, but they can make it easy to have fun. True, there are fun games that have poorly written or conceived rules, but great games tend to have great rules.

Managers and leaders are the game designers of their business, in that they are the ones that set up the rules and expectations for everyone. The goals and objectives a business has serve the same function as the rules of a game. Sometimes the goals of an organization are nothing more then a win condition, but say nothing about how to accomplish the win. Imagine playing chess being told only that you win by putting the other players king in a position they cannot escape from – without understanding the rest of the rules this win condition is almost useless. 

True leaders do more than describe the desired outcome of their organization’s efforts. By also describing how that outcome should be attained, and describing the kinds of behaviour that may lead to the desired outcome, the true leader is ensuring the ‘rules of the game’ are understood and improving the odds that ‘everyone has fun’. In business everyone can win, unlike many games, and leaders should strive to put in place a set of goals that set everyone up for success.

But even describing the ‘how’ the goals should be accomplished does not ensure the goals are as good as they can be. Often poor goals are crafted because they ignore the reality they will ulitimately lead to. Avid game players will work to find ways to exploit any system of rules to their advantage; we even call this ‘gaming the system’.  Goals that beg for being ‘gamed’ lead to inappropriate behavior.

Here is a quick example: One of my first real jobs was doing telephone support. At the time the organization was still learning how to successfully manage this business, so we were being goaled on things that often ended up not making sense. One of the managers goaled their team on keeping call times down – longer calls meant less people served in the same amount of time, so if you rewarded low call times we’d be more productive, right? We quickly realized that with the tools available to measure us we could disconnect a caller quickly – not something managment would have liked – to balance out a call that may have gone  long. By the goal we were being measured be we did very well, but our real business – serving customers  successfully – was not met. By not consideirng how the goal could be gamed managment failed to provide a useful goal.

Its true that call time was one important metric for the call center business we were in, but by focusing on it disporportionally management encouraged behaviour that ulitmately did not serve their purpose. Far better would have been a set of goals that clearly defined the ultimate goal – customer satisfaction – along with the various ways we can deliver the ultimate goal. Calls going too long were one way that our customers were getting unhappy, so keeping call times was important, but only within the greater context of ensuring customers were happy. The story ends on a happy note though, as the manager using call time alone as their primary metric soon realized the actual affect it was having on the business and found a better goal for their team.

In the way that game designers have to consider how their rules may be twisted and abused by players, managers need to ensure that the goals they provide to the organization lead to the real behavior they want. Game designers often don’t get everything right the first time – brutal playtesting helps rules get better and better. Managers should not be afraid to adjust the goals they present to the organization; they should in fact recruit the organization as ‘testers’ to help improve the goals.

Leaders who realize how well crafted goals, like good game rules, can make everyone better off, will find greater success with the same constraints and resources than the leader who has not thought as deeply about their goals. Thinking of your organization’s goals as game rules can help you avoid some of the pitfalls that poor goals suffer from.


Written by joshuahoward

January 16, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. This is a very interesting post! I always wondered if folks in the game industry saw “business operations” as a sort of gameplay as well. As a manager, I too see a large portion of my ability to integrate processes effectively as a direct result of setting clear goals + objectives, ground rules, etc. This in turn leads to flow, provides a foundation for continuous improvement and enables efficient practices. If you replace “fun” with “business efficiency” in one of your sentences: “…well written rules can’t force [operational efficiency], but they can make it easy to have [operational efficiency]”. This highlights a need for a manager to have a sense of how the human being thinks (cognition, psychology, learning, etc.) that is very game design based. Thanks for posting on this topic.

    Ivona K

    April 14, 2009 at 11:40 pm

  2. Thank you! I have found that most, even in the gaming world, don’t realize that business operations can be seen as just another game. Its odd to me that folks can think deeply about the user experience, but often spend much less time thinking about the employee experience.


    April 15, 2009 at 7:19 am

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