The Innovation Games

Let’s start with the games that kicked off everything – the original Innovation Games® from the book. Then you can scroll down and find other collaboration games that have been created on the amazing Conteneo platform.


Prune the Product Tree

Shape Your Product to Market Needs

Gardeners prune trees to control their growth. Sometimes the pruning is artistic, and we end up with shrubs shaped like animals or interesting abstract shapes. Much of the time the pruning is designed to build a balanced tree that yields high-quality fruit. The process isn’t about “cutting,” it is about “shaping.” Use this metaphor to help create the product your customers desire.

The Game
Start by drawing a large tree on a whiteboard or butcher paper or printing a graphic image of a tree as a large format poster. Thick limbs represent major areas of functionality within your system. The inside of the tree contains leaves that represent features in the current release. Leaves that are placed at the outer edge of the canopy represent new features. The edge of the tree represents the future. Write potential new features on several index cards, ideally shaped as leaves. Ask your customers to place desired features around the tree, shaping its growth. Do they structure a tree that is growing in a balanced manner? Does one branch, perhaps a core feature of the product, get the bulk of the growth? Does an underutilized aspect of the tree become stronger? We know that the roots of a tree (your support and customer care infrastructure) need to extend at least as far as its canopy. Do yours?

Remember the Future

Understand Your Customers’ Definition of Success

“What should our product do?” Ah, yes, the seemingly open-ended question that many times isn’t that open ended at all. Most of the time, what your product should do is some reasonable extrapolation of what it has done in the past. Your cell phone should have better signal strength, longer battery life, and be lighter. So should your laptop. And your car should be safer, faster, more stylish, and get better gas mileage. The question “What should our product do?” is therefore often trivially answered: “Your product should be better.” Which should make you wonder, are you asking the right question? And are you asking it in the right way?

The Game
Hand each of your customers a few pieces of paper. Ask them to imagine that it is sometime in the future and that they’ve been using your product almost continuously between now and that future date (it could be a month, quarter, year, or, for strategic planning purposes, five years or even a decade—pick a time frame that is appropriate for your research goals). Now, ask them to go even further—an extra day, week, month. Ask your customer to write down, in as much detail as possible, exactly what your product will have done to make them happy (or successful or rich or safe or secure or smart; choose the set of adjectives that works best for your product).

Spider Web

Understand Product Relationships

All products and services coexist within a larger context of an ecosystem of related, complementary, and even competitive products and services. Unfortunately, product designers often fail to recognize and leverage the relationships within this ecosystem. This often means they miss innovative opportunities to create happier customers and capture more revenue. The Spider Web game helps you understand how your customer sees the relationships between your product and service and other products and services. You can then use this information to capture more revenue by creating innovations around these relationships.
One kind of innovation occurs when you realize that you can do more with your current product. This discovery often leads you to change your product’s boundary, or the demarcation between your product and other products, or between recommended and actual usage. Of course, the creator of the product or service is not usually the person who discovers the new usage. I don’t think that Proctor and Gamble intended for Bounce Fabric Softener Sheets to be used for dissolving soap scum from shower doors or for wiping up sawdust from a woodworking shop, but these are common alternative uses for Bounce.4
Another kind of innovation occurs when you realize that you can create a better total solution by establishing partnerships between your offering and other offerings. A financial-services firm might partner with an estate-planning firm to create a better total solution for families with young children. A yogurt maker might partner with a cereal manufacturer to create a healthy new snack that leverages both brands. A human resources software vendor might integrate its application with a payroll provider to eliminate errors that occur through redundant data entry.

The Game
Put the name of your product or service in the center of a circle. Ask your customers to draw other products and services that they think are related to your product. As they draw these products and services, ask them to tell you when, how, and why these are used. Ask them to draw lines between the different products and services. Encourage them to use different colors, weights, or styles to capture important relationships (for example, important relationships can be drawn with a thicker line or a different color pen). The Spider Web game works well with the Start Your Day game. After your customers review when and where they use your offering, you can explore in a subsequent session the various relationships that exist between the different products and services that they use throughout the day.

Product Box

Identify the Most Exciting Product Features

The aisles of supermarkets around the world are filled with colorful product boxes from all over the world. They tell us of products that are new. Improved. New and improved. They tell us how these products will make us thinner, smarter, sleeker, happier. In the process, the best boxes help move that box from the shelf and into our home.
Product Box lets you leverage your customers’ collective retail consumer experiences by asking them to design a box for your product. Not just any box, but a box that represents the product that they want to buy. In the process, you’ll learn what your customers think are the most important, exciting features of a given product or service.

The Game
Ask your customers to imagine that they’re selling your product at a trade show, retail outlet, or public market. Give them a few cardboard boxes and ask them to design the product box that they would buy. The box can contain anything they want—marketing slogans that they find interesting, pictures, price points. They can build elaborate boxes through the materials you’ll provide or just write down the phrases and slogans they find most interesting. When finished, ask your customer to use their box to sell your product to you and the other customers in the room.

Buy a Feature

Prioritize Features

Which feature will entice customers to purchase your product? Which feature will cause customers to upgrade? Which feature will make customers so happy that they’ll ignore or tolerate the features that they wish you would fix or remove?
Product planners endlessly debate these and other kinds of questions. Choosing the right set of features to add to a release often marks the difference between short-term failure or long-term success. Unfortunately, too many product planners make this choice without involving the people most affected by it—their customers. The Buy a Feature game improves the quality of this decision by asking your customers to help you make it.

The Game
Create a list of potential features and provide each with a price. Just like for a real product, the price can be based on development costs, customer value, or something else. Although the price can be the actual cost you intend to charge for the feature, this is usually not required. Customers buy features that they want in the next release of your product using play money you give them. Make certain that some features are priced high enough that no one customer can buy them. Encourage customers to pool their money to buy especially important and/or expensive features. This will help motivate negotiations between customers as to which features are most important.
This game works best with four to seven customers in a group, so that you can create more opportunities for customers to pool their money through negotiating. Unlike the Product Box game, the Buy a Feature game is based on the list of features that are likely to be in your development road map.

Start Your Day

Understand When and How Your Customer Uses Your Product

Products might seem static, but they’re not. Well, at least not like you might think. The product may be static, but our relationship to the product isn’t. It changes based on how we use it. And how we use a product changes based on lots of factors, including our age, experience with this product or other similar products, or even our location. One of the biggest modifiers of how we use a product is when we use it. By focusing on the when, you’ll get better insights into the how.
Consider that the insulated mug that keeps your coffee hot in the morning keeps your juice cold in the afternoon. Chances are pretty good that you use your financial planning software differently when you review your monthly budget versus when you prepare your taxes. You may rely on your favorite email/scheduling program to help you start your day by planning it and to help you end your day by tracking which “to-dos” actually got done.

The Game
COn preprinted, poster-sized calendars or on a simple timeline drawn on a large sheet of paper, ask your customers to describe the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly events that are related to their use of your product. Ask them to describe events in time frames appropriate for your product—beginnings and ends of days or weeks, recurring events such as birthdays, one-time events such as installing a new software system, special events that are unique to an industry or sector (like a conference), or days in which everything goes horribly wrong and they’re looking for help. While they’re doing this, be alert for how your product helps, or hinders, their day.

Show and Tell

Identify the Most Important Artifacts Created by Your Product

Much like a child excitedly sharing his most prized possession at school during show-and-tell, customers are often equally excited about the results that they can produce with your product, and they’ll tell you all about it—if you let them. In the process, you’ll gain new insights into what really matters.

The Game
Ask your customers to bring examples of artifacts created or modified by your product or service. Ask them to tell you why these artifacts are important and when and how they’re used. For example, if your product is a software system to manage invoices, ask them to show you the invoices, reports, or spreadsheets that they’ve created through using your product. If you make running shoes, ask your customers to bring you several pairs of worn shoes and tell you about all their runs.
Pay careful attention to anything that surprises you. What did you expect customers to create or modify that they have ignored? What things can you do with your product or service that aren’t used? What was used in unexpected ways? What do these tell you?

Me and My Shadow

Identify Your Customers’ Hidden Needs

Designers have a wealth of ideas on how their products can and should be used. These idealized notions keep competitors and quality assurance people in business, as designers never seem to include the idea that a cell phone makes a great door stop, or that a remote controlled toy dump truck is the best way to move your keys, wallet, and the TV remote control across the room after you’ve had knee surgery, or that the best way to soothe a crying baby is to put them on top of the washer or dryer.6 Of course, few of your customers will remember to tell you about these experiences. To learn about them, you need to watch your customers use your product on their terms, not yours.

The Game
Shadow your customers while they use your product or service. Literally. Sit or stand next to them and watch what they do. Periodically ask them, “Why are you doing that?” and “What are you thinking?” Take along a camera and make photos of key activities and the context in which work is accomplished. Ask for copies of important artifacts created or used by your customers while they are doing the work. Bring along other customers and use them as interpreters to explain what a customer is doing, help you ask clarifying questions as to why the customer is doing things this way. During the game, ask your other customers to share whether they do things the same way with the person you’re observing, and watch how your customers explore and even debate the various approaches they bring to using your products and services.
Me and My Shadow differs from The Apprentice in that Me and My Shadow focuses on observation and The Apprentice focuses on experience.

Give Them a Hot Tub

Use Outrageous Features to Discover Hidden Breakthroughs

Brainstorming is an attempt to leverage the creative power of a group of people who are trying to solve a problem by encouraging them to come up with as many different ideas as possible. Then the ideas are evaluated and one or more are selected as potential candidates for solving the problem, presumably in an innovative way.
When brainstorming is done well, it can be effective in generating breakthroughs. Consider, though, that traditional approaches to brainstorming are biased toward internal groups of people. That’s okay, but I’ve found that the real breakthroughs come when you work directly with customers. So, instead of generating and evaluating your own “crazy” ideas, the Give Them a Hot Tub game encourages you to generate your crazy ideas and let your customers determine just how crazy those ideas really are!

The Game
Write several features on note cards, one feature per card. Include several outrageous features. For example, if you’re making a portable MP3 player, try adding features like “heats coffee,” “cracks concrete,” or “conditions dog hair.” If you’re making a system that manages payroll, try adding features like “plans family reunions” or “refinishes wooden floors.” If you’re building an office building, add a hot tub in the lobby. What happens when a customer uncovers one of these outrageous features?

The Apprentice

Create Empathy for the Customer Experience

When you understand your customers’ needs so well that you can envision solutions to problems they may not realize they have, you are well on your path to creating innovative products and services. This game, which helps create empathy for the customer, allows you to take the path that leads to innovation with your customer at your side.

The Game
Ask your development team to perform the “work” of the system that they are building. If they’re creating a new masking tape for painters, ask them to work with real painters, using the masking tape in the field. If they’re creating a new professional oven, ask them to cook meals with a professional chef—not in a classroom, but in a real restaurant, where they have to experience the actual challenges of creating meals. If they’re building workflow management software for furniture delivery people, have them deliver furniture. They will gain direct knowledge of the problems customers face and empathy for how hard it may be to solve them.
Warning! Play this game with some common sense! This game is not recommended for such things as Formula One race car driving, neurosurgery, or high-explosives research.

20/20 Vision

Understand Customer Priorities

Effective product teams not only understand which set of features must be present to justify a release, they have carefully enumerated the ranking of each.8 They know which is “number one,” which is “number two.” They know which set of stakeholders care the most about number one, which care the most about number two, and so on. They also know that different market segments may not agree among these rankings, so they seek to understand differences among the market segments. The most effective product teams take this even further and can demonstrate how their prioritization supports larger business priorities (and when the business priorities aren’t clear, these teams clarify them!). The challenge is understanding the underlying qualitative motivations to market-driven priorities.

The Game
When you’re getting fitted for glasses, your optometrist will often ask you to compare two potential lenses by alternately showing each of them (“which of these lenses is better—number one or number two?”). Although it may take some time, eventually you’ll settle on the set of lenses that are best for your eyes. You can use a variant of this approach to help your customers see which priorities are best for them, as customers often have trouble “seeing” which features are the highest priority, especially if you’re asking them to compare several features at the same time.
Start by writing one feature each on large index cards. Shuffle the pile and put them face down. Take the first one from the top of the pile and put it on the wall. Take the next one and ask your customers if it is more or less important than the one on the wall. If it is more important, place it higher. If it is less important, put it lower. Avoid placing the item at the same level; try hard to rank each feature. Repeat this process with all your feature cards, and you’ll develop 20/20 vision for what your market really wants.

Speed Boat

Identify What Customers Don’t Like About Your Product or Service

Customers have complaints. And if you simply ask them to complain, they will. This may be okay, but be careful; the seemingly harmless snowflakes of a few minor problems can quickly become an avalanche of grievances from which you can never recover. I’ve sat through a few of these “let it all hang out and complain about anything sessions,” and just about everyone leaves the room tired and frustrated. Think “angry mob” and make certain you know where the exits are located.
It doesn’t have to be this way. You can ask your customers what’s bothering them if you do it in a way that lets you stay in control of how complaints are stated and discussed. In the process, you’ll find fresh new ideas for the changes you can make to address your customers’ most important concerns.

The Game
Draw a boat on a whiteboard or sheet of butcher paper. You’d like the boat to really move fast. Unfortunately, the boat has a few anchors holding it back. The boat is your system, and the features that your customers don’t like are its anchors.
Customers write what they don’t like on an index card and place it under the boat as an anchor. They can also estimate how much faster the boat would go if that anchor were cut and add that to the card. Estimates of speed are really estimates of pain. Customers can also annotate the anchors created by other customers, indicating agreement on substantial topics. When customers are finished posting their anchors, review each one, carefully confirming your understanding of what they want to see changed in the system.