(Em)Powering Techonomy Workers Through Innovation Games

The lead story in the Sept. 26, 2011 issue of Forbes is David Kirkpatrick’s Social Power and the Coming Corporate Revolution: Why Employees and Customers will be Calling the Shots. Despite some of the negative sensationalism that Mr. Kirkpatrick uses to introduce the topic, he got quite a lot right. Unfortunately, he left out the most important thing– how, exactly, will corporations engage their employees and customers? In this post I’ll review Mr. Kirkpatrick’s article and then fill in the gaps he left for the reader with examples of how our customers are using our games to dramatically improve employee engagement.

Root Causes of the Corporate Spring

Early in the article, Kirkpatrick quotes Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, in comparing the empowerment of employees to the Arab Spring, in which employers will be forced, through social technology, to show authenticity, fairness, transparency and good faith. Sadly, Kirkpatrick spends the vast majority of his article extolling the virtues of social media to enable embattled workers to rise up against corporate oppressors. While social media can (and should!) help correct for some of the most egregious corporate offenses, and while reporting about it can help sell magazines, it’s more productive to examine some of the root causes behind this “Corporate Spring”, and then explore how serious games can productively tap a corporation’s employee power.

 

  • As Kirkpatrick points out, social tools are everywhere. They’re easy and effective and can’t be stopped or controlled.
  • The Millennials who are entering the workforce are expecting more than just access to social tools — they are expected to have their voice heard.
  • As product release cycles decrease, managers have less time to assemble “formal” or highly analytic data on each decision. They need to find ways to make tough decisions, fast. Put another way, “actionability” is more important than statistical significance.
  • Millennials and workers are putting less stock in “making” the previous decisions work. Instead, they’re adopting more Agile practices, responding to changes instead of following comprehensive plans, and reconsidering prior decisions and making new ones more frequently.

 

It’s important to note that these are not isolated trends. Instead, they’re related to each other in complex ways that are driving change. And, if it feels like these forces and the changes they’re creating are increasing … they are.

Twitter, IM and Blogs Aren’t Enough

Twitter, chat, blogs, Flickr, Facebook — They’re all great. They provide more mechanisms for every member of the corporation to have his/her voice heard. Employees can share information and, as Kirkpatrick points out, use social media to quickly identify, and at times even correct, corporate wrong-doing.

While this is great, it is woefully insufficient for what corporations need from the internet and social media. Let’s assume that most of the time our corporations are not engaging in nefarious plots. Instead, let’s assume that they need to engage in a variety of activities that perpetuates their existence — activities like:

 

  • Creating new products
  • Improving existing products
  • Understand customer problems and priorities
  • Marketing and selling products
  • Managing complex project portfolios
  • Allocating resources to projects
  • … and a whole host of other activities.

 

Engaging in these activities requires goal-directed, real-time online and/or in-person collaboration, often with a facilitator who can answer questions and draw out the best ideas from the participants. And, it turns out, each of these activities can be accomplished through games. Let’s see how this can play out in one of the most demanding aspects of corporate life: portfolio prioritization.

Portfolio Prioritization through Innovation Games

Project portfolio prioritization is a tough job. Even when times are good, you can’t take on every project. When times are bad, you not only have to take on fewer new projects, but you also have to reevaluate your portfolio and stop ongoing projects. Stopping projects, in turn, is a part of commonsense portfolio management. Whether you practice rigid gates, flexible gates or funding by the seat of the CEO’s gates, project are started and stopped all the time. It’s easier to stop a project when you have clear data that the project is not going to result in appropriate financial returns. It is a lot harder when swirling macroeconomic forces motivate us to scrutinize each project more carefully, resulting in more aggressive choices (cuts) in a corporation’s portfolio.

How you make these choices has a profound effect on how your organization will respond to the news concerning which projects will receive continued funding and which will be cut. Jack and Suzy Welch discussed critical aspects of effective decision making in the age of the Internet in their article The Connected Leader. Pre-dating Kirtkpatrick’s article by a few years, The Welches write:

“We would suggest that it can be just as damaging for a leader not to respond to feedback as it is not to ask for it at all. In the old days, layers of management filtered out too many good ideas from below, but they also filtered out nattering. In the era of Internet communities, leaders will have to find, largely on their own, ways to process the good and bad alike.”

At Innovation Games, we can’t agree more. Our experience is that the worst approach to portfolio prioritization is to have a small number of “senior leaders” close their doors and make the choices of which projects are funded in secret, without input from their internal and external stakeholders. Sure, decisions are made, but those affected rarely implement the changes with the speed and clarity needed in these tough economic times.

Senior leaders making decisions by fiat is what is driving Kirkpatrick’s and Benioff’s to equate corporate decision-making to the Arab Spring, in which citizens demand representation in complex decisions that affect their lives. A far better process, and one that is advocated by Kirkpatrick and the Welches, is to have modern leaders leverage the many tools that the Internet provides to help them engage with their employees to make better decisions. One such tool is Buy a Feature, which enables groups of internal and external stakeholders to collaboratively prioritize project portfolios. (I’ve created an extensive overview of how to use Buy a Feature to prioritize project portfolios, including case studies from VeriSign, Cisco, and HP, here.)

By enabling others to actively participate in a decision-making process that requires trade-offs, leaders can gain a better understanding of which projects are most important, why they are considered to be important, and how they can be improved to have greater impact. Ultimately, the leadership team may not agree with the results of the collaborative prioritization process, and choose to fund or cut a different set of projects than chosen by the team. That’s OK, because there are times that the leadership team may possess unique information not known to the players. The benefit to the leaders is now they know which of their choices requires more elaborate discussions with the larger organization before execution.

Much more likely, however, is that the leaders will endorse the choices of the employees. And it is here where you see the power of engaged and involved employees. Because employees were engaged in the process, they support the choices. Execution starts faster. There is hustle — extraordinarily hard to measure on a quarter-by-quarter performance report, but easily quantified as the organization finds a way to win.

Are You Ready for the New Game?

Like social media, the use of games to solve complex problems is growing. We’re seeing our games used by strategic account managers who seek to understand changing customer priorities to software development teams who want to improve their process. And the use of games dovetails nicely within the forces that are driving change within corporations. After all, it is a pretty safe bet that the millennial you’ve just hired has spent more time actively playing video games than passively watching TV. Are you prepared to play this new game?

 

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