If you’re one of those people who are sceptical about the value of games, think again. Gamers have unique thinking skills valuable especially in times of uncertainty. Here are five ways game thinking improves productivity in an organization and creates collaborative teams.  But first, a look at thinking styles.

I think, therefore I am

There are many different thinking styles, each useful in different scenarios. Each style is useful in some aspect of work or daily life.  It is not a one or the other, rather, it is choosing which one to use in a given situation.  An agile mind is flexible enough to be efficient in all the different thinking styles. For an organization to be optimally productive, you need to practice and become proficient in all these diverse thinking styles.

Logic thinking, for example, is useful for procedural work like computer programming and analysis. Lateral or creative thinking, on the other hand, is useful for innovation and problem-solving. You typically, however, don’t want a call centre agent or doctor to be too creative and would prefer they stick with what they know.   You do, however, want the visual designer or movie producer to be creative in their thinking.  Parallel thinking, yet another common thinking style, is useful for decision making and focus or when there are time constraints.

Game thinking is a very unique style of thinking and is extremely useful when dealing with any form of uncertainty or complexity at scale. Navigating through a pandemic and the uncertainty it brings, thus calls for applying more game thinking.

But what exactly is game thinking? And how is it different from other styles of thinking?  This post will touch on the main characteristics of game thinking and how it improves a more collaborative workforce.

1. Gamers are goal-focused

In the average work environment, the goal often gets so fuzzy that people don’t realize they are not contributing to the goal. In fact, being seen as important often becomes the goal, neglecting and even forgetting the very reason for a product, service or organization to exist. Rather than moving towards a goal, it becomes a competition to add more. More features. More customers. Also more employees. More meetings. In fact, many see a calendar filled with back-to-back meetings as a status symbol. There’s a false illusion that being seen as busy or bigger equates to being more important.  This distracts the people from the actual goal.

The most exclusive brands are often the small, boutique-like brands focusing on a niche target market rather than trying to please everyone. Think Tesla, who focused on a small percentage of car lovers in their original model.  Think Nespresso who only makes coffee machines.  Then think designer brands with their unique signature styles that immediately differentiate them from the bigger, more commercial brands.

          A gradual shift?

Each time you add something more to a product or organization, the goal or essential value proposition becomes slightly more fuzzy or diluted.  It becomes slightly harder to achieve your goal with every new team, new feature or new customer. The shift is however so gradual that no-one notices. It becomes increasingly fuzzy and complicated until you need 80% of the available effort to deal with the impact of unintended changes.  A mere 20% or less of productive time is available to add value.

Gamers, on the other hand, would never play a game if they had to spend 80% of their time performing maintenance.  Everything they do is driven by a  goal, or win condition. Every decision they make is based on the goal.  Do you fight the monster to get a valuable treasure chest? Or do you avoid it because it’s an unnecessary obstacle that keeps you from finding the princess you have to save? Do you explore the cave to look for valuable artefacts that will aid you in your journey? Or do you move on without looking around so that you can get to the main cave faster? Do you move on to fight another monster or stop to heal enough before you engage in another battle?

A more goal-focused workplace?

With game thinking everything depends on the goal and your relationship to that goal. Even when the goal is unknown, the focus is on solving the puzzle that will reveal the win condition.  The goal might be clarifying the goal, but it remains focused on that one thing that you want to achieve.

Now imagine a workplace where every decision is to achieve a mutual goal? Rather than following a schedule planned by a project manager or dictated by a team leader as the right way to do something, imagine if you could give your team goals to achieve.  Imagine allowing them to find their path and overcome the obstacles towards that goal without the interference or restrictions of a plan or rigid processes. After all, planning is done when you know least about a project and the only guarantee is that you don’t know everything then.

2. Gamers are curious

In the average work environment, especially larger organizations, people are discouraged from questioning rules, procedures or decisions often compounded with the busy-ness touched on in the previous point. Workers are encouraged and rewarded for following rules and procedures and often punished for asking too many questions. The insecure manager often wants to be seen as the one with all the answers. When the team sees issues or opportunities that the manager didn’t see, they might feel offended.

This results in a reactive workforce that only does tasks given to them.  They will often ignore blatantly obvious issues, or work around them, to get a good performance appraisal and please the manager.

Gamers, on the other hand, are naturally curious. They constantly look for clues, easter eggs and secret doors. If there’s a door they will attempt to open it. If there’s a big red button they’ll push it to see what happens. They’ll explore the room thoroughly looking for secret doors or valuable artefacts before moving on to the next location. When they kill a monster they first search the corpse for anything valuable, to increase their resources, abilities and strength.  Game thinking is resourceful thinking.

When you present a gamer with an impossible goal, they’ll try different strategies to find an answer. Compare this with the average employee in a large organization who follows the same procedure even if it doesn’t work that well because that’s what they’ve been told to do and doing anything else will get them into trouble.  Where game thinkers look for possibilities, the average employee looks for excuses.

A workplace motivated by harder problems to solve?

Employees follow rules. Gamers solve problems.

Imagine a workplace where you reward people for solving puzzles and problems rather than following a pre-planned schedule? Or imagine rewarding employees with bigger, more difficult proverbial monsters to fight (aka bigger projects or more complex products) when they learn a new skill? Imagine a team motivated to explore more efficient ways to solve an existing problem?

When you allow people to try new things you cultivate curiosity. And it’s the curious minds that will help the entire organization level up as they are the ones that will find the shortcuts and the hidden treasures.

3. Gamers are risk-takers

Adding to the previous point, the average work environment attempts to mitigate risks and steer away from anything that has not been thoroughly analysed. The larger a business grows, the safer it tends to get.

Banks, for example, will gladly give a salaried employee a loan to pay for a holiday they might not be able to afford, simply because they can prove their ability to repay debt. They won’t, however, give a talented teenager with a lot of potential to become a big earner a study loan if their parents aren’t wealthy enough to guarantee regular repayments.

A gamer, in contrast to the typical large organization, goes towards the challenge or conflict rather than choosing the safe option. When presented with a choice the gamer will most probably choose the more risky option, as long as they think they have a chance to survive the encounter.

If there are two options – one a safe, but boring road, the other a dangerous monster-filled alternative, they’ll nine times out of ten choose the more risky option.  They know risky endeavours are rewarded richly while taking the safe route is boring, and without treasures to find. It’s much more fun fighting a monster than an uneventful walk with no conflict or surprise attacks.

A braver workplace filled with risk-takers?

Now imagine a workplace where people are brave enough to go where no-one else has gone before. Imagine a culture where people take calculated risks which reaps valuable returns. Imagine a workplace where people are motivated to gain more experience, find more treasures, and level up their skills?

A great team of course will not only have risk-takers.  A good game is balanced with easier and harder challenges as no-one can constantly participate in high-risk choices, but that’s a discussion for another post.  The focus here is that safety is not going to get you to that next level.  It will keep you where you are and sometimes that is the best choice, but the typical gamer wants to level up constantly.  They want to get better.

4. Gamers are team players

Even though most workplaces like to believe they actively contribute to team effectiveness and collaboration, in reality, by having a team leader or manager and performance appraisals, people spend a lot of effort to be seen as better than their peers. The typical organizational design cultivates competition where each person wants to stand out as the top employee to beat the bell curve and get that bonus.

Most large organizations, unknowingly and unintentionally, reward competition rather than collaboration. If you have an organizational structure based on function rather than product, you are most certainly rewarding competition. When only the top performers are rewarded, you’re also creating a culture of competition.

Gamers, on the other hand, play primarily for the social aspect of games. The most popular games are multi-player games or collaborative challenges where the goal is impossible to solve by one player alone.  To win you need allies with different skills or abilities that will help you kill that monster.

There’s no hierarchy.  Only a goal that’s impossible to solve on your own, which is ultimately also the goal of any organization.  You look for allies that have something you don’t have, rather than trying to be better than them at what you have in common. To fight that monster, you’ll fare better when you have a healer, a fighter and a rogue. It’s the dependency on your teammates that makes a game social, and more fun.  It further adds to the experience by adding a level of unpredictability that the game designers could never achieve on their own.

A more collaborative, diverse, and autonomous team?

Now imagine a team where each person contributes something different and valuable to enable them as a whole to achieve a goal. Imagine having an autonomous team with an explorer – someone who tries out different tools and techniques – a socializer, – someone who maintains harmony in the group, – an engineer or problem solver, – someone who can fix things – and a designer, or someone who can make something looks really awesome. Imagine rewarding teams for achieving impossible goals?

Then, imagine teams that manage themselves, freeing you, as manager, to grow the team and organization and build on the organizational vision.

5. Gamers are resilient to failure

To elaborate on the previous point of risk-taking. While most workplaces only invest in solutions that have been proven to work and are averse to taking risks, gamers spend as much as 80% of their time failing.

All these failures, however, don’t deter most players from trying again. And again. And again.

Rather, each time the player fails they become more resilient and determined to win. In fact, they look forward to losing as that means that they’re fighting a bigger monster, and as a result, getting stronger and learning something new. They’ve re-framed the negative connotation that people have with failure into something desirable. They know that the more frustrating the failure the bigger the win.   It’s the epic win or that feeling that you’ve achieved something you thought was impossible, that makes a game so enjoyable.

Scientifically, our brains dopamine centres don’t light up when we win, but when we perceive the possibility to win. When a player is engaged in a boss fight. That super hard level right at the end of a game level. It feels hard but still achievable. They know the boss fight is an indication that they’re about to level up, and possibly win a big reward and that motivates them to try again.

A more resilient workforce?

Now imagine a workforce where people are willing to try again and again. Do they try until they solve that sticky problem rather than give up at their first failed attempt? Imagine a resilient team able to bounce back after a failure?  Imagine a team that is not demotivated by failure,. But rather motivated to try even harder?

Gamers don’t see failure as bad. Rather, they see it as feedback (a topic that can easily cover an entire post and the single most crucial game mechanic) that tells them that either they don’t currently have the skills or resources needed to achieve the goal, or they need to try a different strategy.

Imagine a workplace where failure is simply not an option.

Imagination is the ultimate superpower

Game thinking is a useful thinking style in a volatile or uncertain workplace, but the ultimate superpower is imagination.

Gamers stretch the possibilities available to us in daily life.  They see solutions or strategies that are simply not possible when you are trained to follow rules as most large organizations like employees to be.  They can imagine alternatives and strategies and possibilities that no supercomputer can ever imagine.   Finally, they can create worlds.

Now imagine a workplace where nothing is impossible and people used their creativity to create solutions rather than excuses? Imagine a workplace where people look forward to obstacles because then they have an opportunity to show their proverbial superpowers?

So next time you discard games as an unproductive waste of time or light entertainment, think again.

Image courtesy www.unsplash.com

With 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.