Budget Games: Three Times the Charm!

Budget Games: Three Times the Charm!
 
The Innovation Games Summit wasn’t the only big event in January. Many of the attendees stayed on for the third annual Budget Games event for the City of San José, CA. The event was our largest Budget Games yet, with 40 facilitators and observers–some of whom came from as far as Sweden, Canada and the UK–and 120 local residents.

Our hat’s off to the Innovation Games community for donating their time to help the residents of San José. The Budget Games could not have been possible without their committment to spend their Saturday helpingthe citizens of San José prioritize the budget.

Get those people actively involved in the process! San Jose Budget Games: A Graphic View

Getting people involved in the decision making process can be quite a challenge, but the City of San José has a successful 3-year track record of partnering with Innovation Games® to pull its citizens out of their homes and into City Hall for the Budget Games. Mark McGregor facilitated at this year’s games and highlights his experience here.  “It was equally impressive to watch how people changed their perceptions based upon new inputs from other players,” explains McGregor.

Building a Better Budget

Andrea & Andy Simon, Innovation Games Qualified Instructors, came for New York to volunteer at the Budget Games. Andrea writes in her blog post on the event, “What is so interesting about these games is that Andy and I had different roles to play at different tablesand each table went about the games differently. Mine decided to agree to the revenue and cost issue first, so that they knew how much money they had to work with. His went after the priorities. Some of the tables went immediately to public safety. Mine discussed community centers and libraries and thought there were enough police and firemen but that they had to be used more effectively.”

 


As Seen in the Financial Times: Playing the Budget Game

Financial Times: Playing the Budget Game

On November 9, 2012, Financial Time’s Assistant Editor and Market Commentator Gillian Tett wrote about our work with the City of San Jose, CA to elicit feedback and cooperation from community leaders and city residents during the budgeting process. Like many cities in the U.S., San Jose has faced budget shortfalls, resulting in reduced city services. Beginning in 2011, we adapted a version of our prioritization game “Buy a Feature” to work for government, allowing citizens, during the Budget Game, to not only “purchase” the city services they most value, but also gain revenue for those purchases by either cutting current services or increasing revenue through various tax measures.

Tett writes, “A cynic might dismiss this as just a marketing or political gimmick. And San Jose appears to be the first city in the US to do anything quite like this. But, if nothing else, the experiment is distinctly thought-provoking, particularly given the real-life democratic dramas that have played out in America this week.”

The third annual Budget Games for the city of San Jose will be on January 26, 2013. And Every Voice Engaged, the nonprofit founded to bring Budget Games to other communities is in talks to bring the games to local governments across the U.S.

To read the complete Financial Times article, go here. Want to get involved with the 3rd Annual Budget Games? Sign up at EveryVoiceEngaged.org.


As Seen in Businessweek: Games Politicians Play

Collaborative play for problem solving has hit the mainstream! Businessweek recently profiled our work with the city of San José, CA, highlighting how we and the Every Voice Engaged Foundation have been  working with local governments and nonprofits to apply Innovation Games to the difficult problems many communities are facing.

The inspiration for the 2011 and 2012 Budget Games for San José, CA, emerged from our work with organizations like Cisco, Qualcomm, Yahoo!, Adobe and others. Tackling complex problems in prioritization, strategy, new product development is all stock and trade for us, and many of those techniques are applicable for communities as well.

Making Sense of the Games Politicians Play

San José citizens play Budget Games, an adaption of Buy a Feature created by Luke Hohman.

“One Saturday morning last year, about 90 leaders of neighborhood associations in San José gathered in small groups to play a game. Each person had a roll of fake money, from which he or she could pay for city services—like beat cops or libraries. Each group lacked enough money to cover the city’s budget. “We intentionally, just like reality, gave them far less money to buy the things they wanted,” says Kip Harkness, San José’s senior project manager.

By morning’s end, all the groups had agreed to run the city’s fire trucks with one less fireman each to save money. City council members adopted that change in San José’s actual budget last summer. At the same meetup this year, residents agreed to eliminate paid overtime for city managers, and six of 10 groups were willing to raise their sales tax by 0.25 percentage points, which the city is now considering. “I really haven’t had anyone tell me this is a waste of time,” says Harkness. “That’s pretty incredible when you’re talking about budgets.”

Click here to read the entire article.

 


Agile & Innovation Games Can Change the World

Agile & Innovation Games® Can Change the World

You can make a difference. That was the message today in Luke Hohmann’s morning session at Agile 2012. In the hour long talk, “Fixing Broke(n) Governments with Serious Games”, Hohmann introduced Innovation Game’s civic engagement efforts, and outlined how we’re continuing to bring change to communities, while working with the Every Voice Engaged Foundation.

In addition to the two successful Budget Games events held for the City of San Jose, CA, Hohmann also discussed other game initiatives to drive community growth, including Make My Neighborhood Great and We Commit.

The 30+ attendees must have left inspired based on the session feedback (See it here). We’ll be calling on them to bring Budget Games and Community Growth games to their cities.

If you want to be involved and bring change to your community, let Every Voice Engaged know.


San José Citizens Use Innovation Games® to Make Tough Budget Choices

On January 21, 2012, a diverse and highly motivated group of community leaders and engaged citizens from the City of San José, CA, played a specially designed Innovation Game®, Budget Games, to provide feedback regarding their budget priorities to the Mayor and City Council. With the involvement of the City of San José Neighborhood and Youth Planning Commissions, this budget prioritization event, which was based on a similar event held on January 29, 2011, enabled citizens to collaboratively tackle complex issues and through the mechanics of serious games develop solutions to very complex problems. Eleven games were played by 87 residents. Each game was played at a table with 7-9 players, along with two volunteers from the Innovation Games® community who acted as game facilitator and observer for each table.

The Budget Games, along with other Innovation Games events for nonprofit and civic organizations, demonstrate that serious games generate unprecedented levels of citizen engagement and help our elected officials make tough choices. And the results are nothing more than astonishing, with more than 10 out of 11 citizen groups voting to raise taxes in which eight of 11 citizen groups choosing to spend this tax revenue on improving critical transportation infrastructure (detailed results can be found here). In past surveys by the city, respondents had also advocated tax increases, but the prevailing opinion was that support would erode as the issue was put out for public debate. The Budget Games, with their emphasis on collaboration and discussion, actually revealed that public sentiment remains strong in the face of debate. Also, while taxes were raised, and corresponding monies spent in this serious game, fiscal restraint ruled the day, as 10 out of 11 citizen groups chose not to spend all available money.

How is it then, that “games” can generate such amazing results?

Game Design

The design of any game flows from the goals of the game designer. To create a suitable game for the Priority Setting Session, we started with the Innovation Game® Buy a Featurewhich has been used by many Bay Area companies such as HP, Cisco, Adobe and VeriSign to prioritize product features and project portfolios. In Buy a Feature participants are given a limited amount of money to collaboratively purchase items of interest. Extending this to meet the needs of the budget session, we settled on the following game design. Citizens were given 19 hypothetical funding proposals and 13 hypothetical cost-savings and/or revenue-generating proposals and were told to make choices according to the following rules:

  1. To acquire funds to purchase (or “fund”) a funding proposal, citizens must reach unanimous agreement on a cost-saving or revenue generating proposal; the funds from this choice were then distributed to the participants.
  2. Once these proposals were enacted citizens could then purchase funding proposals with the money. Collaborative purchasing was encouraged, and in many cases required, as the most expensive items could only be funded in collaboration with other citizens.
  3. Citizens could also add new funding proposals into the game, increasing ideation and citizen engagement.
  4. Certain proposals were linked, in that citizens could choose either one of a pair of choices or neither choice. In addition, one revenue-generating was a parcel tax with special rules: The parcel tax that could only be used to fund pavement maintenance.

During the game play, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) representing various city departments and disciplines, were available to answer questions related to proposals, as requested by the players. While it’s very hard to convey the high-energy and dynamic discussions that occurred during the game, participants found the experience challenging, engaging, stimulating and, perhaps surprisingly for those who have had to deal with such challenging issues, fun.

Results, Part One: Purchases, Taxes, and Cuts

Innovation Games produce powerful, multi-dimensional results that enable organizations to take action on deep insights generated by the data. In these Budget Games, these results included the purchases (what is important), the negotiations between players (why it is important), the education of players as they explore items (insights and ah-has) and the emotional bonds that form during collaborative purchases. The easiest game results to understand are the preferences of the players as determined by their purchases, tax choices and funding cuts. For example, eight of 11 tables funded pavement maintenance; seven through a parcel tax and one through a sales tax. And while seven tables voted for Workers Compensation and Disability Retirement System Reform that would save the city and estimated $2M, not a single table voted to reduce the Children’s Health Initiative or eliminate the Park Ranger program.

Results, Part Two: Motivations and Negotiations–or Why These Purchases, Taxes and Cuts?

As the players negotiated with each other to purchase or cut various projects, they revealed the deep motivations that were driving their behaviors. By analyzing these negotiations, we are able to better understand exactly why certain choices were made. Our corporate clients find these negotiations essential in making sound business decisions against the preferences. So has the staff of the Mayor’s office.

To illustrate the power of these negotiations, you’ll note that when exploring the deeper reasons that eight out of 11 tables chose to fund pavement maintenance over other spending choices, the most common reason was that roads have simply deteriorated too much, and that no amount of budget cutting can generate the money required to repair them. More importantly, citizen leaders know that they’re investing in the future of their city. This willingness to enact tax increases to fund pavement maintenance was inline with results of past surveys by the city, but as mentioned before, there was doubt about the strength of that sentiment in the face of public debate. The game results revealed the congruency of public sentiment with the survey, especially since game play hinges on debate and discussion. For example, one table of citizen-players spent 85 minutes arguing over whether to enact the tax increases, but with time running out, they knew they had to act to reveal their preferences and voted for the tax increase. Unlike traditional market research methods, the Budget Games are able to reveal the depth of public sentiment, in this case, that the traditional survey’s results were accurate.

The item purchased by all citizen groups was Gang Prevention programs. Gang violence is perceived as a very serious systemic threat to the city, causing a whole host of problems. Rather than singling out any one problem, citizens focused on the system of problems associated with Gang violence, with discussions at most tables focused on “non-police” intervention to increase the safety and “livability” of the city. Of course, citizens recognized the vital role that police play in gang intervention. However, as one resident noted, police are just one part of a system that must work together to prevent gang violence. And no matter which aspect of the system was emphasized, every table voted for it.

In 2011, 10 out of 12 tables chose to reduce Fire Truck Staffing from five firefighters to four, saving the city an estimated $5,000,000. In 2012, however, only three of 11 tables chose to reduce staffing from four to three. Discussions from the citizens suggested that the amount of “cutting” associated with Fire Department staffing had reached a limit, and that further cuts to Fire Truck staffing would not solve the city’s problems and could make it worse.

Were these easy choices? No, of course not. We cannot stress that these choices were extremely tough for the community leaders who participated. This was a very serious game. Fortunately, the negotiations of all but one table were extremely civil, primarily because players were sitting face-to-face, in small groups. And even most contentious table eventually turned around when the citizen-players were reminded that their spirited discussions of the items would have little impact unless they actually made purchases or cuts to match their convictions.

More Results: Education!

One of the potential criticisms of these games is that “ordinary” citizens cannot possibly possess enough knowledge to give useful, actionable feedback on budget items. To some extent, this is true: We can’t expect that every citizen possess the same level of wisdom, experience and understanding of the detailed analyses (financial, social and other analyses) of key budget items as the officials (from the city, the unions who represent city workers and others) who negotiate the budget.

However, claiming that “ordinary” citizens cannot provide meaningful feedback on their perception of budget priorities is simply wrong. Our experience with the community leaders participating in this event was that they were extremely well-versed in many of the budget items. During the negotiations, many were able to reference key facts and figures as capably as any official in the room. This enabled players to educate each other during the course of play.

Of course, players regularly had questions about the impact of their choices. To ensure these questions were answered as accurately as possible, a variety of Subject Matter Experts were on hand to assist the players. These Subject Matter Experts ranged from Fire Chief William McDonald and senior officers of the police department to the head of the Library. In all cases, the challenge of negotiating which items to purchase and which items to cut, and the ready access to Subject Matter Experts, enabled the players of these games to become far more educated on these items during the game.

Another important aspect to education is the willingness to change our point of view as we learn more about an issue. Simply put, like many Americans, we are tired of simplistic points of view taken by people who affiliate themselves with a party. Instead of discussing issues openly, they take the easy road and just vote on “party lines”. A better choice is to discuss issues with an open mind. Doing so just might change your mind. A great example of this is this interview with Robert Benscoter, one of the participants, in which he states, “I was able to get different points of view that actually altered a couple points of view.” This is one of the most powerful aspects of small group collaborative games.

The Results of Play: Emotional Bonds

As players struggle to convince other players to purchase or cut items, they share more than just the facts that are driving their choices. They share their stories. And it is these stories that enable the players to identify with each other at a level of humanity that is impossible to obtain through traditional approaches to market research.

Eric Donkers, a Cisco employee who donated his time to facilitate one of the games, noted in a conversation after the event that there were a number of reasons why players formed such powerful emotional bonds during the games. The most important reason was cited earlier: Players sat in small tables, in relatively close physical proximity to one another. The Innovation Games Facilitation team also played a significant role in the event. Our facilitators are trained to manage the flow of the negotiations, encouraging quiet participants to share their stories, while even-handedly guiding overly dominant players to give others a chance. The limited funds that were distributed to each player also encourage full participation: Even the most vocal player cannot spend someone else’s money. Eventually, arguments to convince someone to spend his or her money a certain way eventually give sway to actually listening to another player outline his or her own motivations for spending money.

A Not So Surprising Result … Fiscal Restraint

In a Buy a Feature game, our trained facilitators neither encourage or discourage players from spending money. Instead, facilitators work to ensure that players are spending their money on the items that are most important to them. By engaging in these conversations, we learn what is really motivating players, and how items must be shaped to deliver the high impact or best (business) value).

In the San José City Budget Games, most tables elected not to spend all of their money, even after making tough budget cuts or even harder choices around raising taxes. At first, this might seem a bit surprising, especially since this was “play” money. However, experience with virtual currencies suggest that people behave much the same way with virtual currency as with real currency. In these specific games, the citizen-players of San José, CA were very clear that they wanted to demonstrate fiscal restraint. Some tables were quite proud of the fact that they were not going to spend their money.

Were the Results Gamed?

“Gaming” a game is a pejorative term that suggests that players are not playing by the rules and that the outcome is not fair. In the case of these games, “gaming” the San José budget games would mean that the qualitative research results we’ve obtained are not actionable because of any or all of the following:

  • The results of the games were skewed by the choices presented to players.
  • Items were described in a way to intentionally motivate certain purchases.
  • Subject Matter Experts intentionally provided misleading information.
  • Facilitators guided players to certain pre-determined outcomes.
  • Observers did not accurately record or represent the negotiations of the players.

As a member of the Qualitative Consultants Research Association, I can assure you that we did everything in our power to ensure that these negative outcomes did NOT occur. We believe that the results we obtained are actionable and that they fairly represent the interests and preferences of these community leaders. Perhaps more importantly, citizens strongly praised the subject matter experts for trying to explain complex issues without unduly influencing citizen choices.

The Best Result? Action!

Although we’ve completed our games, the hard work of creating the 2012 -2013 City of San José Budget continues. We’ve provided our results to city leaders, and they have told us that these results will be used to help them in creating the budget. This is, in our eyes, the best possible result of our games. They enable people to take action on the insights generated in the games.


San José Citizens Play Innovation Games to Reveal Budget Priorities (Video)

On January 21, more than 100 community leaders from San José, CA played a specially designed version of Buy a Feature, Budget Games, to reveal their priorities for the City of San Jose’s 2012-2013 Budget. This is the second year the city of San José, CA, has worked with The Innovation Games Company to bring citizens, community leaders and city government together for a priority setting session to kick off the six month budgeting process. San José, CA, like many cities, is facing another year of budget deficits–a shortfall made worse by the State’s slashing of redevelopment agency funds.

In this coverage from CBS Channel 5, Mayor Chuck Reed, Council Member Pierluigi Oliverio, TIGC CEO Luke Hohmann and community leaders all comment on the difficult decisions facing the city and how the community can come together to tackle it.

Video

San José Voters Take On Balancing The Budget With Innovation Games


A Realistic Vision For Citizen Engagement Through Games

In this third of three posts on the San Jose City Budget Games, I’ll present a vision of how serious games like Innovation Games® can motivate a new kind of civic engagement that has the potential to radically improve the quality of our governments and our lives. More importantly, instead of presenting some pie-in-the-sky vision that would costs tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to create and require a highly unlikely set of behavioral changes, I will present a series of pragmatic, cost-effective and engaging solutions to common problems facing civic leaders. Along the way, I’ll make what might turn out to be obvious comparisons to the problems facing most companies. My hope is that you’ll find a scenario that matches a problem you’re facing and that you’ll be inspired to try solving it through a collaborative game.

The first post in this series is here. The second post is here.

Civic Engagement Is The Goal

Simplifying a lot of history, let’s consider the structure of a representational democracy. Wikipedia tells us that a “Representative democracy is a form of government founded on the principle of elected individuals representing the people, as opposed to autocracy and direct democracy.” I quite happily live in a representative democracy. And while no governmental structure is perfect, I’m convinced that representative democracies are an effective form of government.

One area of representational democracy that has me concerned, however, is the degree of participation of the citizens within their governments. Participation in government is declining, and that’s not good:

  • Citizens can’t elect the best representatives when they’re not engaged in understanding the issues and the actions that potential representatives intend to take if elected.
  • Elected officials can’t make the best choices unless they have some way of understanding the preferences of their citizens.
  • It is very hard to find innovative solutions to the hard problems that we’re facing when we’re not engaging in dialog and debate about both the problems and the solutions.

Ultimately, a lack of broad participation means that we simply won’t realize the benefits of a representational democracy: Too small of a set of citizens will wield a disproportionate influence over the political process.

We believe that Innovation Games and other serious games can help solve the problem of citizen engagement. Our experiences in the San Jose, CA, City Budget Games confirms this idea. Let’s explore a few examples to see how games can improvement engagement, provide elected officials with better data for decision-making and drive innovative solutions to tough problems. My focus will be on genuinely realistic ways that we can improve engagement. I will cover:

  • Budget Priorities
  • Relationships Between Programs and Services
  • Identifying Ways To Grow Cities
  • Understanding What Needs To Improve
  • Creating and Implementing Compelling Visions of the Future.

 

Budget Priorities

This is an easy one. Just read through my first and second posts on the San Jose Budget Games. They provide a realistic, practical and actionable approach to establishing budget priorities using a tailored version of Buy a Feature, a game that uses a virtual marketplace of ideas to determine priorities. And while the San Jose Budget Games were played in-person, our online version of Buy a Feature can be used to engage large numbers of citizens. The relationship to the kinds of problems that companies face in establishing budget priorities is quite obvious, considering that Buy a Feature was originally created to help companies prioritize product requirements with customers. Facebook marketing guru Paul Dunay blogs about Buy a Feature here.

Bang For the Buck As a conscientious blogger writing a three-part series, I don’t to merely repeat the previous posts. Instead, I want to offer other ways collaborative games can solve problems, including prioritization problems. One game that I think could work for governments who might like to try improve their internal prioritization efforts is known as “Bang for the Buck.” See Scott Selhort’s post on this topic here.

The goal of this game is to collaboratively rank a project backlog based on estimated value and estimated cost. The y-axis is the value of an epic or story and the x-axis is the cost. Each axis is organized as a Fibonacci number. We use Fibonacci numbers to help with the “relative value” and “relative cost.” We don’t use actual costs estimates, because these will change rapidly throughout the game.

Clicking on the image to the left will start an “instant play” game on our serious games platform. You’ll see this image as the “game board” and an icon of a light bulb in the top left corner of this window. The light bulb represents the projects you want to prioritize. To add a project onto the game board, simply drag it from the top left and describe it.

Now the fun begins! While any player can move a light bulb at any time, the game works best when the person or persons who are responsible for assessing the value provided by a project focuses on getting the light bulbs in the right place vertically, while the person or persons responsible for understanding the costs puts each project in the right place horizontally.

Our gaming platform includes an integrated chat facility so that players can negotiate about the items. And any player can edit the items to keep track of the agreements of the team. This means that items will move around during the game as the value of an item increases or decreases or the costs change as the team considers various ways of implementing an item.

To get the final results of the game, simply download the Excel spreadsheet from our platform. All of the items and their Fibonacci values will be available to you for post-processing, including all of the chats. You can then convert these items into actual costs.

We’ve seen our corporate customers gain value in prioritizing projects using this grid. We believe city managers and their workforce would gain similar benefits.

Relationships Between Programs / Services

One of the concerns that citizens raise about government is the potential for waste when city agencies perform dual or overlapping functions or when citizens don’t understand the relationships between various programs and services that may be offered by different departments. Another kind of relationship that is often misunderstood is the relationships that exist between businesses, community agencies and nonprofits. In many cases, these organizations would happily work together more effectively — if they could only identify these relationships.

Businesses face nearly identical problems. Customers often don’t understand the complex set of relationships that exist between products and services. More importantly, businesses seeking new revenue opportunities or cost-savings can realize them through a better understanding of product and service relationships.

We have a game for this, Spider Web, in which the players collaborate to create the web of relationships that exist, or might/could/should exist between products and services. By collaboratively exploring these relationships from multiple perspectives, participants generate amazing clarity. Spider Web is a very low-tech game. We typically play this game with whiteboards and marker pens, or on big rolls of paper with Sharpies®.

If cities assembled citizens, businesses and nonprofits and asked them to play Spider Web to identify ways in which the natural relationships that exist between these organizations could be leveraged to solve complex problems, the potential benefit would be enormous. Shawn Crowley and Carl Erickson of Atomic Object discuss how Spider Web helps their clients generate new ideas for products and services here.

Identifying Ways to Grow Cities

Complex products and services aren’t static. They evolve over time as technology improves, tastes change, old requirements find themselves obsolete, and new requirements emerge. To help companies better understand and manage the growth of their products and services, we’ve invented the game Prune the Product Tree. In this game, which can be played in-person or online, we typically use images of trees to represent the growth of a technology product or service, and apples or leaves to represent new features. By moving items around, players can shape the growth of the tree to best meet their needs. In the process, companies gain tremendous insight into product roadmaps. Josh Lannin, Senior Director of Product Manager at Oracle, describes how Prune the Product Tree helped engage his user community and set the direction of his product and service here.

It is, of course, trivial to say that cities are constantly changing. Sometimes cities are growing. At other times, they are decaying or dying. And based on our experience in the corporate world, perhaps a better way to engage citizens in shaping the desired growth of their cities would be our game Prune the Product Tree. One reason is that choice of metaphor is quite intentional: A fruit tree does not bear the best fruit if it is not periodically pruned. I’m confident that citizens, if given the chance, would relish the opportunity to share their perspectives on growth with civic leaders. I’m equally confident that the rich metaphors would also help participants discuss challenging topics in a more open, honest, and forthright manner than traditional means of debate.

 

The rich metaphors of a tree can be extended in any number of ways. For example, consider the idea of assessing the kinds of benefits attendees of a conference or meeting received during and after the event. You can play an online version Prune the Product Tree that does this. Clicking on tree at the right will open an online version of our game. You can drag the following items onto this tree:

  • Red Apples are benefits you expected — and got!
  • Rotten Apples are benefits that you expected — but didn’t get.
  • Presents are unexpected benefits that made the conference great.

Keep in mind that that this is a collaborative game. This means that you can invite other players to play. And when they drag something around — you’ll see it in real time!

Understanding What Needs To Improve


Businesses have learned that if you ask someone to give feedback on a product or service … they will. And while it can be challenging to listen to negative feedback, it is often the complaints of customers that create the greatest opportunities. We use the game Speed Boat to help our corporate clients capture this kind of feedback. In this game, a product or service is represented by a boat. Everyone wants the boat to go fast. Unfortunately, there are some anchors that are holding the boat back. By asking your customers to write down these anchors and reviewing them as a team, you can better understand how to improve your product or service. The celebrated user interface expert Richard Anderson discusses how he used Speed Boat to understand what is preventing or promoting User Experience at work in this post.

Given the amount of energy that citizens expend complaining about their government, the applicability of this game is pretty obvious. But should governmental officials play it? I ask this because as I wrote this post, I found myself empathizing with government officials: If I were a government official, I’m not so sure that I’d want to ask citizens for their anchors. But, you know what? Business leaders face the same emotions as government officials. They can be just as nervous asking for negative feedback from customers.

The answer, of course, is yes. Simply stated, no matter who you are, asking for criticism is not easy. And yet, we need to do it.

Fortunately, Speed Boat is carefully designed to obtain critical feedback in a way that keeps everyone focused on the issues without losing control of the process. And because Speed Boat can be played both in-person and online, every organization can leverage our game. In this post I’ve provided a link to on online version of this game. Clicking on this image will open an “instant play” version of Speed Boat, with 25 anchors that can be shared among the players. And playing this game online will enable governmental leaders to play LOTS of games, efficiently gathering critically needed input. And this input — once shaped — can be fed into our prioritization games for program implementation.

Creating and Implementing Compelling Visions of the Future

Leaders of all sorts find it easy to set grand visions of the future. Devising plans to realize these visions is a bit harder. As you can guess by reading this far, we have a game that can help business leaders, elected officials and other leaders both create and realize compelling visions of the future. This game is Remember the Future. As explained in this video by trained facilitator Lowell Lindstrom, who used this game to help the Scrum Alliance, Remember the Future engages players to create and define how they will realize compelling visions of the future.

I’d be thrilled to see government officials invite community leaders to play this game on how their cities could collaboratively work together to realize key goals. For example, suppose one of the shared goals is a reduction in crime. Remember the Future is the perfect game to identify how this goal — and many others — could be realized.

Playing Games For Engagement

Whether you’re a concerned citizen, a community leader, the head of your PTA or the General Manager of a $220 million dollar product line, I hope that this post has given you some concrete examples of a realistic vision of Citizen and Customer Engagement through games. I look forward to playing with you!

 


San Jose, CA Community Leaders Budget Games Results

SJCbudgetgames5On Jan 29th, 2011, history was made when a diverse and highly motivated group of community leaders and engaged citizens from the City of San Jose played a specially designed Innovation Game® to provide feedback regarding their budget priorities to the Mayor’s office. In what has the potential to become a template for igniting a whole new kind of civic engagement through serious games, this second post of a three part series shares event results and experiences from many of the participants, including community leaders, city officials, and Innovation Games® Facilitators. Be on the lookout for my third and final post, where I will provide ideas on how Innovation Games® can be used to help solve a variety of civic problems.

Background: Motivation and Goals

Like many city, state and national governments, the City of San Jose, CA, is facing a significant 2011-2012 budget deficit. To quickly recap the motivations and goals described in my first post of this three-part series:

  • The Mayor’s office wanted to better understand the priorities of citizens regarding key budget initiatives to help inform the budgeting process.
  • The event organizers wanted to try Innovation Games® as a way to engage community leaders in giving feedback.
  • Community leaders, representing a diverse cross-section of the city, wanted to participate in the budget process.

At the outset, I’ll point that Mayor Reed thought the event was a “huge success“. Read the rest of this post to find out why.

Detailed Event Design

While my first post outlined the design of the event, it didn’t provide details because we were still negotiating these details with the Mayor’s office. Now that the event is finished, we can provide the final event design.

  1. The Mayor’s office created  list of 18 funding proposals that community leaders could purchase using the basic game structure of the Innovation Game® Buy a Feature. The total cost of these items was $14,000,000. The list of items that we used in this game can be found here: funding proposals.
  2. Community leaders organized into groups of between 7 and 9 players, with 8 players / game as the most common configuration. Each player was given $200,000 to purchase items they wanted. This was a very constrained game, and Community leaders quickly determined that they couldn’t buy much.
  3. The Mayor’s office created a second list of budget cuts that the Community leaders could select through unanimous agreement to get more money. This list of potential budget cuts we used in this game can be found here: reduction proposals.
  4. The pricing and structure of items on either list cannot be adjusted (this is a standard rule for Buy a Feature games).
  5. One Innovation Games® Trained Facilitator and One Innovation Games® Trained Observer managed each group to minimize researcher bias and record key aspects of the negotiations.
  6. The game was played for 90 minutes.
  7. There was no requirement that any items were purchased or cut. The community leaders were in complete control of their virtual money.

The Dynamics of Play

It is very hard to convey the high-energy dynamics of an in-person Innovation Games® event. I’ve included a few photos throughout this blog post to convey some of the energy in the room.

We were also joined at the event by Elizabeth McClellan. Elizabeth is both a trained Innovation Games® Facilitator and a skilled facilitation artist. She was able to capture the dynamics of the event quite nicely. Here is an image she captured as the event began:
SJC Budget Games Prioritization
And here is another that represents the kinds of negotiations that were happening in full swing.SJC Budget Games 1

Results, Part One: Purchases and Cuts

Innovation Games produce powerful, multi-dimensional results that enable organizations to take action on deep insights generated by the data. For Buy a Feature, these results include the purchases (what is important), the negotiations between players (why it is important), the education of players as they explore items (insights and ah-has) and the emotional bonds that form during collaborative purchases.Tableplay

The easiest game results to understand are the preferences of the players as determined by their purchases. By looking at the bid patterns of players – who purchased what – we can determine key preferences. In the attached results file, you can see, on a per-game basis, the bids made by each of the players in the games. You’ll note that for certain items the bids are listed as uniform across the players in the game. This happens in two circumstances. The first is when the players agree to pool their money and purchase items as a team. The second is when the extremely fast-paced game produced bids and purchases faster than our team facilitators and observers could track.

As you may recall from the detailed design of the games, the players were also given a list of projects that they could cut in order to fund items they wished to purchase. The results of these cuts are also contained in the spreadsheet. We didn’t track individual choices on these cuts, because it was a rule of the game that these cuts must be made unanimously.

Results, Part Two: Motivations and Negotiations, or Why These Purchases and Cuts?

As the players negotiated with each other to purchase or cut various projects, they revealed the deep motivations that were driving their behaviors. By analyzing these negotiations, we are able to better understand exactly why certain choices were made. Our corporate clients find these negotiations essential in making sound business decisions against the preferences. So has the staff of the Mayor’s office (see Mayor Reed’s February e-newsletter for his take on the event).

Mayor Reed and CEO Luke Hohmann speak to the participants before the games begin.
Mayor Reed and CEO Luke Hohmann speak to the participants before the games begin.

To illustrate the power of these negotiations, you’ll note that when exploring the detailed results 6 out of 12 teams decided to delay the opening of the South San Jose Police Substation by several months, saving the City of San Jose several million dollars. The most common reasons for this were that since the city does not enjoy the benefits of having this substation open now, delaying it would not hinder serious impact the residents.

11 out of 12 tables chose to reduce Fire Truck Staffing from 5 firefighters to 4 firefighters, saving the city an estimated $5,000,000. This is a challenging choice to make, as no citizen wants to put the safety of their families at risk. Fortunately, Fire Chief William McDonald was present and patiently answered several questions from citizens who were considering the cut (see his photo, below). Fire Chief McDonald helped everyone understand the ramifications of this potential decision.

Like many cities, the citizens of San Jose actively volunteer their time on a number of civic projects. One celebrated example in San Jose is the Community Rose Garden, where citizens have created a truly wonderful place to visit. Some of the items that were not purchased suggested that citizens have a greater understanding of what projects are likely to garner support from volunteers. For example, several tables that did not purchase the “Christmas in the Park” project suggested that this project may benefit from volunteers providing the funds necessary to keep this project alive.

sjcbudgetgames16Were these easy choices? No, of course not. I cannot stress that these choices were extremely tough for the community leaders who participated. This was a very serious game. And, quite frankly, I was concerned that the games could spiral out of control with players screaming and shouting at each other. Fortunately, the negotiations of all but one table were extremely civil, primarily because players were sitting face-to-face, in small groups. And, I’d like to add, the most contentious table eventually turned around when I reminded the players that their eloquent discussions would have little impact unless they actually made purchases or cuts to match their convictions.

Taking the time to read through the observations of the chat logs takes time (just ask Wako, our VP of Marketing, who read through pages of Observer notes). But it is worth it, as these provide key insights into the deeper motivations that guide purchases.

More Results: Education!

One of the potential criticisms of these games is that “ordinary” citizens cannot possibly possess enough knowledge to give useful, actionable feedback on budget items. To some extent, this is true: We can’t expect that every citizen possess the same level of wisdom, experience and understanding of the detailed analyses (financial, social and other analyses) of key budget items as the officials (from the city, the unions who represent city workers and others) who negotiate the budget.

TableKHowever, claiming that “ordinary” citizens cannot provide meaningful feedback on their perception of budget priorities is simply wrong. Our experience with the community leaders participating in this event was that they were extremely well-versed in many of the budget items. During the negotiations, many were able to reference key facts and figures as capably as any official in the room. This enabled players to educate each other during the course of play.

Of course, players regularly had questions about the impact of their choices. To ensure these questions were answered as accurately as possible, a variety of Subject Matter Experts were on hand to assist the players. These Subject Matter Experts ranged from Fire Chief William McDonald and senior officers of the police department to the head of the Library.

Fire Chief McDonald answers questions from San Jose residents.
Fire Chief McDonald answers questions from San Jose residents.

Consider, for example, the choice that many groups made in choosing to cut the Helicopter and/or reduce fire engine staffing from five firefighters to four. Many of these very tough choices were made after the players had a chance to talk directly with the Fire Chief or members of the police department. Of course, the converse is also true: Some groups that had considered making these cuts changed their mind after talking with these officials.

In all cases, the challenge of negotiating which items to purchase and which items to cut, and the ready access to Subject Matter Experts, enabled the players of these games to become far more educated on these items during the course of play.

Another important aspect to education is the willingness to change our point of view as we learn more about an issue. Simply put, like many Americans, I’m tired of simplistic points of view taken by people who affiliate themselves with a party. Instead of discussing issues openly, they take the easy road and just vote on “party lines”. A better choice is to discuss issues with an open mind. Doing so just might change your mind. A great example of this is this interview with Robert Benscoter, one of the participants, in which he states “I was able to get different points of view that actually altered a couple points of view”. This is one of the most powerful aspects of small group collaborative games.

The Results of Play: Emotional Bonds

As players struggle to convince other players to purchase or cut items, they share more than just the facts that are driving their choices. They share their stories. And it is these stories that enable the players to identify with each other at a level of humanity that is impossible to obtain through traditional approaches to market research.TallyingVotes

Eric Donkers, a Cisco employee who donated his time to facilitate one of the games, noted in a conversation after the event that there were a number of reasons why players formed such powerful emotional bonds during the games. The most important reason was cited earlier: Players sat in small tables, in relatively close physical proximity to one another. The Innovation Games Facilitation team also played a significant role in the event. Our facilitators are trained to manage the flow of the negotiations, encouraging quiet participants to share their stories, while even-handedly guiding overly dominant players to give others a chance. The limited funds that were distributed to each player also encourage full participation: Even the most vocal player cannot spend someone else’s money. Eventually, arguments to convince someone to spend their money a certain way eventually give sway to actually listening to another player outline their own motivations for spending money.

A Not So Surprising Result… Fiscal Restraint

In a Buy a Feature game, our trained facilitators neither encourage or discourage players from spending money. Instead, facilitators work to ensure that players are spending their money on the items that are most important to them. By engaging in these conversations, we learn what is really motivating players, and how items must be shaped to deliver the high impact or best (business) value).

In the San Jose City Budget Games, several tables elected not to spend all of their money, even after making tough budget cuts. At first, this might seem a bit surprising, especially since this was “play” money. However, experience with virtual currencies suggest that people behave much the same way with virtual currency as with real currency. In these specific games, the citizen-players of San Jose, CA were very clear that they wanted to demonstrate fiscal restraint. Some tables were quite proud of the fact that they were not going to spend their money. Perhaps we need more ordinary citizens who show good financial restraint in leadership positions.

Were the Results Gamed?

“Gaming” a game is a pejorative term that suggests that players are not playing by the rules and that the outcome is not fair. In the case of these games, “gaming” the San Jose budget games would mean that the qualitative research results we’ve obtained are not actionable because of any or all of the following:

  • The results of the games were skewed by the choices presented to players
  • Items were described in a way to intentionally motivate certain purchases
  • Subject Matter Experts intentionally provided misleading information
  • Facilitators guided players to certain pre-determined outcomes
  • Observers did not accurately record or represent the negotiations of the players

As a member of the Qualitative Consultants Research Association, I can assure you that we did everything in our power to ensure that these negative outcomes did NOT occur. We believe that the results we obtained are actionable and that they fairly represent the interests and preferences of these community leaders.

Of course, if you’re unhappy with the results, I invite you to create your own games.

Results and Observations From the Facilitation Team

While I have focused my discussion of results on the players, the players were not the only participants. Our facilitators felt that this was a powerful and humbling experience. John Hornbaker, for example, tweeted that he was “humbled by the San Jose woman I met today: her goal is for 1–ONLY 1–kid in EACH BLOCK in her neighborhood to go to college”.

Gerry Kirk, who joined us all the way from St. Ste Marie in Canada, blogged about his experience as an observer, writing, “the passion people have about their city was evident, the options they had to choose from mattered. They struggled between choices, like funding a children’s health initiative versus a fund for community-based organizations.” Read the rest of Gerry’s blog here.

Tom Grant and Gerry Kirk, one of the facilitator and observer teams for the event.
Tom Grant and Gerry Kirk, one of the facilitator and observer teams for the event.

Brett McCallon, who was singled out in the debrief session by a player at his table for his excellent facilitation skills, noted that his experience was “magical.” Read about Brett’s experience here.

Tom Grant, a Forrester Analyst who covers Product Management, noted that the design of the games illustrated that teams who had a strong vision for the city were able to purchase projects with greater clarity and certainty than teams that didn’t. This has direct parallels to those of us who work in and for product companies, as Tom outlines here.

Members of the Mayor’s staff who were present at the games also noted that they were also moved by the experience and encouraged that they received feedback that they wouldn’t have received through other forums. “Having this understanding won’t make the choices and tough decisions any easier, but it will serve as a good base from which the community can engage with the City, not only to overcome the challenging times ahead, but also to seek lasting solutions to the structural issues which are affecting the City’s financial health,” said Neighborhoods Commissioner Mauricio Astacio.

Budget and Policy Analyst Antonio Guerra remarked the city often hears about the importance of programs like libraries through organized group like “Friends of the Libraries,” but not about issues like road maintenance. More importantly, like those of us in business, city leaders find it hard to make choices that pit short term, often less costly, improvements against long-term, capital intensive, structural improvements. However, when playing this game, citizens demonstrated a remarkable ability to focus on important future investments. Guerra continues, “We get the occasional email about a pothole, but streets don’t vote. No budget cut is easy, but pavement maintenance is easier than most. Yet, at a very high $1,000,000, pavement maintenance was picked to fund by 83% of the tables.”

The Best Result? Action!

Although we’ve completed our games, the hard work of creating the 2011-2012 City of San Jose Budget continues. We’ve provided our results to city leaders, and they have told us that these results will be used to help them in creating the budget. This is, in our eyes, the best possible result of our games. They enable people to take action on the insights generated in the games.

Thank You…

I’d like to once again thank the Innovation Games Facilitation team. You’re an amazing group of people of trained professionals. I’d like to thank Avaya for sponsoring this event. I’d like to thank ARC for helping to defray the cost of printing materials.

The Innovation Games team
The Innovation Games team

Stay tuned for my next post, as it will detail some ways in which you can get involved. In the interim, explore our website. Read blogs and posts about the games. Take a class. Play.

 

Addendum: Game Materials

The following game materials were used at this event.



Huffington Post: Can Games and Gamification Fix Washington?

Gabe Zichermann, Chair of the Gamification Summit and author of Game-Based Marketing, recently interviewed CEO Luke Hohmann for his article in the Huffington Post on how games and game mechanics can be used to fix the political system.

Zichermann writes, “Instead of merely giving users surveys where data is often out of touch with reality, Innovation Games — like the one just completed for the city of San Jose — put the electorate in the shoes of their officials, forcing them to make hard, experiential decisions.”

Read the complete Huffington Post post here.


I’m a Believer

As some of you know, we periodically invite others to contribute to Luke’s blog. Today’s post comes from Brett McCallon, an Innovation Games trained facilitator who worked with us at the January 29th San Jose event.

Sometimes, even when you already believe in something, it’s still possible to have a “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” moment.

I’ve been working with Luke and the Innovation Games team for most of the past year. My passion lies in helping people to learn how games like these can help them to do real, important work. I’ve taken Luke’s excellent facilitation class, I’ve facilitated (and played) games online. But I had never been to an in-person Innovation Games event until last Saturday (January 29th), when I facilitated table “J” at the San Jose Budget Games event.

I want to clarify: I didn’t doubt for a moment that Innovation Games would be effective in helping people work together to face that city’s budget shortfall, better understand the perspectives of their fellow citizens, and come up with actionable intelligence that would inform the city’s leaders as they face down a $110 million problem. But my certainty was purely analytical. What I wasn’t prepared for was the magical feeling of being at that table as the game was being played.

Table "J"
Table “J” at work/play.

First, a brief explanation of how the game was set up: The game was designed as a variant of the Innovation Game(r) Buy a Feature. At each table, citizens from San Jose were provided with a specific, limited list of programs that they could “buy”. Almost all of these cost more than any one player was allotted, and some cost more than all players could purchase, even by pooling all of their money for that one priority. Players could decide to cut other programs, in order to free up funds, but to do so they had to vote unanimously. You can find all of the details in Luke Hohmann’s post about designing the game.

Everyone’s initial conversations were friendly and respectful. I like to think that I kept my nervousness in check as I explained the rules: each player had $200k; they would have to work together in order to purchase most of the programs they wanted; they could only purchase a program fully (no “50% funding”); and finally, that we would eventually consider cuts to other city services if they so chose.

Almost immediately, we ran into problems–players began discussing programs they believed should be funded, and arguing about these priorities, but no one was putting down their precious pretend dollars. Finally, as one player insisted that a public restroom project simply mustn’t be overlooked, I said, “Ok–how much is it worth to you.”

At that moment, the table’s dynamic changed dramatically. Suddenly, players were wheeling and dealing, putting money down on their preferences, striving to convince other players of the righteousness of their priorities, etc. As bids began to settle down in four or five of the most popular programs, we reached our second point of contention. The players hadn’t managed to actually purchase a single program.

“Well, we’re never going to be able to afford any of these!” complained one. Disgruntlement threatened to spread. At this point, I passed out the other sheet, listing existing budget priorities that players could cut in order to free up new funds.

At first, this new wrinkle threatened further disharmony. As players read over the sheet, they didn’t like being limited to only these pre-selected programs as potential targets for budget reductions; they didn’t like the idea of having to delay libraries, reduce police or fire priorities, etc. in order to get what they wanted.

Clearly, they were taking this game very seriously, and fortunately the game was designed in such a way that players had access to top-quality, relevant information, in the person of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). These professionals, who volunteered their time to participate in this game, included not only the city’s independent budget auditor, but also the police and fire chiefs. By providing detailed answers to questions on-the-fly, the SMEs ensured that our game reflected the real-world implications of our table’s funding/cutting decisions.

After the players had worked through some of the ideas on the sheet, we held a quick round of voting–there was support for delaying two library projects, as well as for reducing the number of firefighters per truck from five to four. In both cases, though, there were holdouts, and the rules required a unanimous vote in order to make any program cuts.

One player, the lone holdout on the fire truck staffing reduction, seemed almost bitter about the fact that public safety service cutbacks were listed, but that we had no opportunity to try reducing the cost of those services (police and fire pay and benefits packages, essentially). However, once the library delay holdouts were convinced, and voted to free up $1.7 million by delaying their priorities, our fire truck holdout changed his vote. Clearly, he was looking for his fellow citizens to show their willingness to give something up before he was willing to put aside his reasonable grievances and make cuts he found distasteful. And when he saw that willingness, and we were able to make that cut, suddenly a floodgate opened.

It’s worth noting that my table’s priorities and decisions were in many cases very different from mine, as were their experiences. Check out facilitator Gerry Kirk’s experiences in his post on the games, as well as his photostream from the event, below.

With $6.7 million in new funds available, the whole table began funding projects that seemed totally out of reach before. Improved funding for currently operating libraries, projects to support vital infrastructure like road paving–suddenly, frustration gave way to action. The team ended up funding 9 of the 17 projects with which they had been presented. But more importantly than that, they all felt a sense of unity–they were smiling, laughing, putting their extra funds into each other’s pet projects simply because they saw how important these projects were to the human beings across the table from them.

I have a four-year-old daughter, and there is literally no moment of the year I enjoy more than seeing her smile as she discovers Santa’s bounty on Christmas morning. As I sat at that table, I felt myself smile the same smile, watching engaged, involved citizens, from different walks of life, improve their shared sense of community by playing a single game together. I received a gift. I know it sounds hokey, but now more than ever, I believe.