The way you frame a game can also enable you to use it in different ways. One of my favorite examples of this is the coin-flip game. The game is fairly straightforward: A chain of people must process twenty coins by flipping each one from heads to tails or tails to heads. They start using a batch of twenty and slowly decrease the batch size. All the while, efficiency experts are measuring each person’s individual performance. What we generally see is that while individual times degrade as people work for a longer periods across multiple small batches, the cycle time for the entire system improves. We’ve used this game as a powerful experience for managers, who get to play the workers who see their individual times decrease. We emphasize the value of individual contribution by rewarding the top performers in the early rounds, and later threatening to fire them when their performance drops. We talked to the managers measuring the time of each person and discussed what they planned to do with the “low performers,” as well as how those people felt about the entire situation. They had a powerful experience where they could see the old system of performance management punish them for improving the overall system instead of their functional area. This type of powerful experience frequently requires a clear measurement of progress, as I will describe in this article.
Have a Clear Score
People can organize towards action and get better insights if there is a clear goal that everyone can understand and measure against. In the case of the coin flip game, there were clear measures of the cycle time on individuals as well as the entire system. This offered meaningful and objective feedback on how long it took them to complete the work. It also provided a clear incentive: Go as fast as you can. Scores may be counts, such as when teams are trying to produce something in a game like the paper airplane factory or bottleneck game. In fact, these games add another dimension where they ask teams to predict what their throughput will be, and then try to meet it. This introduces an additional goal of being able to predict throughput. Especially if you are playing multiple rounds, people should clearly understand the goal and receive feedback as they go.
It’s critical to have a clearly thought out measure or goal, and the constraints you impose can profoundly impact how the game is played. For example, the coin flip game inherently creates tension between individual performance as well as system wide performance. The point of this game is to give people an experience where they can see how a focus on individual performance can conflict with system-wide performance. If we only measure time through the system, we would not see that. Similarly, the bottleneck game measures the business results of a factory line which is measured in completed boats and hats less the cost of the supplies, in the case of this game that is pieces of paper used. In order to be successful, teams must not only produce a lot, but they must be careful to limit inventory to manager their costs. If there were no such penalty for used paper, we would see very different behaviors, such as overloading the system with inventory. Interestingly, this offers another way to unveil a game, by making progressively more difficult goals for successive rounds of play. Progressive complexity also helps guard against the challenge of overwhelming people with too many rules and challenges at once Let’s take a look at how it can be applied here.
Complexity Can Kill
If the goal of our game is to create a meaningful experience, then we want to ensure it is accurate and realistic, right? This is a line of thinking I have followed to ruin on several occasions. When building a simulation, I often have this vision that someone is going to get up and say to me, “Ah ha! That is not how software development works; you’ve made it too simple and this exercise is therefore invalid.”