Integrating Games to Change Behaviors, Part 1


Training people and introducing new ideas requires more than just clear, factual explanations or theorems. Brian Bozzuto explores how games, simulations, and other exercises play an instrumental role in helping people be comfortable enough with new ideas that they choose to put them into practice.

It was during the middle of a training session I was conducting, when I showed the participants the CHAOS report showing that traditional projects have a meager 30 percent success rate. While most of the participants were taking to the class well, there were a few holdouts—haters, as some of my colleagues might say. I pointed them to the Agile Impact report showing the improved quality and time to market of agile projects. I argued at length about the inherent benefits of empirical feedback loops and adaptive processes in complex domains. I kept crafting intellectual arguments as if I could just strike the right chink in the armor and cause all their resistance and hesitance to collapse upon itself.

For those of you who have ever been in the unfortunate situation of trying to use facts to persuade someone who has an emotional resistance to an idea, you know how this story ends. I answered every question and rebutted every criticism, but at the end of the session they walked out feeling that I just didn’t understand their perspective, and I didn’t provide something valuable for their situation. When introducing a new concept, people must deal with change, and this requires more than just clear, factual explanations or theorems. I have found that games, simulations, and other similar exercises play an instrumental role in helping people be comfortable enough with new ideas that they choose to put them into practice. Before we discuss exactly how to leverage games, let’s take a closer look at the problem.

Why You Should Feel Better
We like to imagine ourselves and those around us as totally rational actors. We might tell ourselves, “Sure, we have feelings, but we don’t let them get in our way when making important decisions. They certainly do not impact us when we are working.” Based on this perspective, it can seem simple to view all problems as being purely analytical ones: Problems are nothing more than really complex mathematical questions to be resolved. Sure, calculating might be tough, but if we can get the right answer, there should be no further problem. This leads to most people using what David Rock calls the “default approach,” where our perspective is that when people come to us with problems, they are simply asking us to tell them what they should do or, in some other way, analytically solve their problems. [1]

Unfortunately, a growing body of research—in addition to my own personal experience—shows that people are quite irrational and emotional actors at times. Let’s look at two examples. First, humans behave along a spectrum of broadness of options. The most well-known spot on this spectrum is the “fight or flight” scenario for someone who is feeling very threatened. A lesser-known spot on the spectrum is the evidence that happy people experience a proportional broadening of perception, options of activity, and even willingness to try novel concepts. [2] Applied to our case here, we can see how failing to account for people’s emotional states may lead us to engage with them on a level where they can’t operate. If I am a project manager in a training class and I’ve heard that agile means no project management, I’m going to be thinking about fighting (disagreeing with the instructor) or running (disengaging from the class).

This discussion of being threatened brings us to a second example of how emotions can conspire against us when trying to learn. Many studies of how the mind functions have revealed that threats to ego are processed by the same neural networks that process threats to basic physical safety. This means that people will mentally respond to perceived attacks upon their ego with the same fervor and urgency as if they were being physically threatened. [3] If we take this insight and look at what might be happening to someone's ego when he is told that his old way of thinking is wrong, it isn’t too far a leap to see that some people would perceive that as a threat to their egos.

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