Innovation Games at Work: Better Broadband

CCA and Agile Coach Karen Spencer is putting Speed Boat to work to bring better Internet Service to her community

Committee Meeting

When it comes to using game to collaborate, Karen Favazza Spencer, an Agile Coach living in Gloucester MA, has a longer history than most. Although she’s been in the business world for over 20 years, she started her professional career as a kindergarten teacher. “Using collaborative games is like Innovation Games is coming home for me. I taught school using similar techniques and now I am using collaborative approaches with adults.”

She’s even using games in her work as the Chairperson of the Gloucester Cable TV Advisory Committee. Recently, Karen took the time to tell about how she’s using Innovation Games® for creating change in her community.


Conteneo: How did you discover Innovation Games?

Karen: At an Agile Boston Event in 2011. When I first saw the Innovation Game® Speed Boat, I immediately recognized its application as a data-gathering exercise for Risk Assessments or FMEA (Failure Mode and Effect Analysis). Since then, I’ve used that particular exercise many times, as well as taught it to others. I’ve always believed in making things visual and interactive. It’s the former teacher in me.


Besides Speed Boat, are there other Innovation Games or techniques that you use in your work?

All kinds. Product Box for feature discussion, 20:20 Vision for prioritization, Remember the Future for initial planning. I also frequently use games from the Gamestorming portfolio, like Fishbowl and Plus/Delta. Whenever I have a problem that requires collaboration, I scan both the Innovation Games® and the Gamestorming inventory for inspiration.


 You’re tackling the problem of Broadband connectivity in your community. Can you tell us about that?

In Gloucester, MA, many residents have only one option for Internet service. We’re on an island, and because of our geography, some residents experience fluctuating service levels and very slow upload data transfer speeds, particularly at certain times of day. We also have challenges with our wireless reception due to granite outcroppings, but our biggest concern is economic development. Our fishing industry is struggling, and our unemployment level is higher than the state average. We want to ensure that new businesses interested in establishing themselves in Gloucester have the broadband environment that they need to flourish.

Happily, our city has taken steps in the past several years to improve our levels of broadband service. However, to attract the type of new businesses we want, the type of maritime and marine research business we need to augment our community’s slumping fishing industry, we need to understand the broadband industry and the telecommunications environment much better. We intend to develop a sustainable long-term strategy and infrastructure that will allow us to compete with any other New England region.

On January 25, we held our first in a series of three exploratory meetings for the purpose of engaging and educating the community and enlisting new committee members. We now have six committee members who are passionate about improving our circumstances, and most of whom have technical expertise in this telecommunications. We have also made contact with several of our neighboring communities. It feels like we went from 0 to 60 in just 6 weeks!


Tell us more about how you used Innovation Games.

I decided to use Innovation Games® to engage residents, businesses, schools, and nonprofits in a discussion about our “as is” Internet environment and our imagined “to be” environment. I used a visible agenda and survey to open the workshop, and then progressed to a game of “Sail Boat” (also known as Speed Boat) for data gathering around the issues.  Then we used Cover Story to articulate our vision for the community. We had about 20 residents playing these games, using post-its and flip chart paper at our local library.

I enlisted three of my Agile associates (Gloria Shepardson, Pat Arcady, and Gary Lavine) to act as observers during the games.  After the residents left, the four of us used the game, Empathy Map, to organize the observations they recorded on index cards during play and to generate insights. The output from all of the games used that day created a very usable foundation that I expect we will build on.


How did your fellow residents react to playing Innovation Games? Any surprises?

I asked for feedback and a numerical rating on index cards after the event. The participants rated the event as “good” to “excellent” across the board. That was a relief because I knew I was sticking my neck out using these games. Comments on the index cards included “Great interactive meeting,” and “I wholeheartedly like this dialogue focus. Thanks!” I was also gratified by the emails I received after the event and the number of great folks requesting to sit on this committee.


What’s the next step for Broadband in Gloucester?

We’re just getting started! Broadband is a complex problem that involves many stakeholders, an ever-changing environment, and complex technology. Each member of our new committee is currently working on a different aspect. When we meet as a committee, I’ll continue to use game techniques to facilitate the knowledge share, so that our committee and our community can continue to move forward. I expect that will involve developing municipal or regional plans that will be eligible for economic development grants.

I’d also like to contribute to the national conversation about broadband. Given the January 14 DC US Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Verizon over the FCC regarding Net Neutrality, and the pending acquisition of Time Warner by Comcast, this is currently a hot topic. Providing our American businesses and citizens with sufficient affordable and reliable broadband to be globally competitive requires the involvement of passionate people. It isn’t something that we can afford to be blasé about.

The Mayor of Gloucester provided the platform, and I used Innovation Games® to engage the community in this dialogue. I’d like to use our local experience and, perhaps through the  Innovation Game® Trilicious, to engage the entire nation in the creation of better broadband for all of us.


Innovation Games in Turkey

Innovation Games Qualified Instructor Jonathan Clark will be a keynote speaker at the forthcoming Agile Turkey Summit in Istanbul, Turkey on September 27th. His keynote is entitled “Why Serious Games are Good for Business” and he’ll explain what Innovation Games® are, why they work so well, and how to use them as part an Agile process.

For more details and how to register, see the Agile Turkey Summit website.

MEET THE SPEAKER: How to Give Innovation Games® a New Twist with Ant Clay

You’re speaking at the Innovation Games Summit about “The Flip Side of Innovation Games®”. What can attendees expect?
My session is about flipping Innovation Games®, showing how to receive even more value from these great techniques. I will explain the ‘outcome driven’ approach I use in flipping collaborative techniques to better solve challenges I face with my clients.
Attendees can expect to try some flipped games, such as new versions of Speed Boat and Start Your Day, and if there’s time, to flip some Innovation Games® together!

What has been your overall experience with doing work with games?
I’ve been using games for the last three years or more, and the more I use them, the more potential I see and the more excited I get! I use the games predominantly in my SharePoint consulting work–around Vision, Requirements, Governance and User Adoption/Change Management. I also had the chance earlier this year to modify some games and lead a facilitated workshop for a construction company to help them re-imagine their Corporate Social Responsibility Policy (CSR), which was amazing fun.
I love the way that using these techniques really helps you understand the organization, the dynamics and the attendees, as well as delivering clear insights into the problem or solution area. But for me, the main reason this area interests me is the positive experiences of the attendees. They enjoy using these techniques; they are engaged in the process; it feels like meaningful work, and most of all we all have a lot of fun.

What techniques/games do you use most frequently and why?
I would say the two most used games for me are Innovation Games Product Box and Hot Tub for facilitating requirements, or collaboration solutions such as SharePoint; I also extensively use the Gamestorming technique Cover Story for eliciting Project Visions.

Do you have a favorite Innovation Game or technique? Why is it your favorite?
They are all awesome in their own way. I don’t really have a favorite, but my modified Speed Boat activity (come to my session to find out more) is certainly up there as a favorite. It’s such a simple exercise to set-up, although I do think it requires considerable facilitator energy and focus to really gain its true value. Also, this is a favorite because, for me, it consistently delivers huge insights in terms of business requirements, organizational culture, workshop attendee dynamics etc. and gives me a first glimpse as to how to embed change in the organization.

What are you most looking forward to at the Summit?
I’m really looking forward to leading my session and learning lots from the attendees’ input. I am excited to hear stories from both the other speakers and the summit attendees on their use of play and games in business which I think will be of huge value. Of course, I am also looking forward to catching up with other the facilitators that I know or have worked with like Ulf, Jürgen, Jonathan and Luke and of course meeting lots of new people and making new friends and connections.


Serious Games At Work

Serious Games At Work, iPadpalooza & more 

One of the best parts of putting this newsletter together each month is unearthing how Innovation Games are changing how people do work, all over the world. This month we have reports on Remember the Future, the launch of a website dedicated to how work can be all about serious fun and more… 

Remember the Future at IPADPALOOZA 

Remembering something that hasn’t happened yet sounds weird, but it’s just the kind of cognitive dissonance that can spark creativity, uncover a breakthrough idea. It’s one of our core games and one the original 12 Luke featured in the book that started it all. And we’re always excited to hear about how it’s being used in the field.

Remember the Future IPadPalooza
Playing Remember the Future


Jeff Brantley, Product Marketing Director at Compass Learning (and one of our Qualified Instructors) recently used Remember the Future at IPADPALOOZA to unearth how mobile is going to upend K-12 education in the coming years.

Jeff played the game with 50 K-12 educators and stakeholders, dividing them into 5 groups, each tasked with a different future scenario around mobile technology and education:

  1. The role of the library in the mobile world
  2. Professional development and mobile
  3. Parental involvement and parent education in mobile
  4. Rethinking Physical Design Space in a Mobile World and
  5.  Creativity, art and soft skills in mobile

What did he uncover? Personalization is big. Libraries aren’t big containers with books, but a central hub and a place for collaboration. Another highlight: one group strongly supported political candidates they described as “right brain creatives” who valued the entire education experience. Want to learn more? Check out this blog post on the entire game.

Luke Hohmann to Present Deep Dive Session at AgileGames 2013

CEO and Founder Luke Hohmann is doing a deep dive session on April 4 at the Agile Games 2013 conference in Boston, MA. The full-day session, “How Serious Games Will Move Us From Better Software Into A Better World”, will allow participants to explore a broad range of serious games in context, from the use of games (agile games, Innovation Games, gamestorming) used in agile software development, to game design and collaborative play to tackle such serious issues as transforming the Mexican Drug Trade into a legal and sustainable business or promote Womens’ rights in Africa. The session includes hands-on and practical experience with a range of serious games, along with background on how the games are used in context.



Deep Dive: “How Serious Games will Move Us from Better Software Into a Better World”
April 4, 2013
10:30 AM – 5:00 PM
More Details and Registration


The Agile Games Conference was formed to explore how concepts like serious play, collaboration, and experiential learning apply to the field of Agile software development and project management. Launched three years ago, the annual event brings together practitioners in agile software development from all over the world.


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. 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 gameplay, 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 in line 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 gameplay 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 capable 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 of 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 suggests 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.

Audacious Gaming

The January/February 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review caught my eye with a series of short articles on audacious ideas. Some of the ideas are really audacious, and challenge you to think differently about the world. Others strike me as pretty mundane. And others could go much further with a dose of Innovation Games®. And not to be denied, in this post I’ll also add our own audacious idea on using Innovation Games can change the world.Harvard Business Review Jan/Feb 2012 Cover

Pay for Performance

I understand — and generally agree — with Bruno Fey’s and Margit Osterloh’s assertions that “pay for performance” compensation models have serious flaws. However, sometimes there is no other way to accomplish an organizations’ goals without some kind of pay for performance scheme. Consider my company. The excellent growth we’re experiencing in Europe suggests that we should hire a European Business Development manager. Since we sell mostly to executives, that person must be experienced. Which means he/she will want a fat salary that he is likely worth — and one we can’t afford. Performance-based pay to the rescue! By offering a commission plan based on results, we can safely grow our business. And sales people love simple plans that put money in their pocket. So, for me, the more audacious idea, which is surprisingly not all that audacious, is to thoughtfully approach job and compensation-design with an awareness of what your company can safely afford and what truly motivates your workforce.

Patient VCs

Bruce Gibney and Ken Howery from Founder’s Fund have an entry about how VCs should  “learn patience” and invest in companies that show real progress. While their article sounds nice, I don’t believe a word of it. I think VCs are just like any other buyer: they buy with their heart and they justify with their head. If they see a start-up they like, they find a way to fund it. If they don’t like the idea, no amount of demonstrated growth or proven results will convince them otherwise.

Fortunately, true commitment in a start-up has nothing to do with the VCs who might invest. Instead, the true commitment of a start-up is found in its employees and customers. When the employees gives up, you’re done. When the early customers don’t come back, you’re done.

I speak from experience. There have been plenty of times when my team should have quit. Like the time we had zero money for payroll. Or the time a key client threatened to cancel their company’s enterprise license because they were justifiably upset that our system crashed at 2:00am Pacific time and no one fixed the server until 8:00am. Which was a real problem since they had planned a large number of games out of their European office. I could go on, but why bother? Most every successful company goes through such challenges.

What matters is how the start-up team finds a way to overcome these challenges. The day we were going to run out of cash a large customer listened to my dilemma and pushed through a new contract for enough money to cover payroll in one day, for which I will be eternally grateful (and if you work in a F500 company, tell the truth: could you push through a contract in one day?). My European client rescheduled the game, and we improved our network monitoring and management systems by moving to Rackspace (full disclosure: and apparently Rackspace likes us too, as they are a customer).

My point? A patient VC is nice. A VC who is not just patient, but who genuinely believes in your idea is more than nice. But a more audacious idea, that frankly is not audacious in the least, is building a team devoted to solving your customers’ problems as best as you possibly can. In the process you might find yourself living a truly audacious idea (at least audacious by Silicon Valley standards): a start-up that doesn’t need venture capital.

Using Innovation Games for Tough Conversations in the Conversation Project

Ellen Goodman’s article on the Conversation Project resonated deeply with me: we need to have thoughtful conversations about how we die. And motivating people to do this, and radically improve health care, strikes me as an inspiring, audacious goal. And while I think many people find the prospect of these conversations scary, or painful, I believe that by using Innovation Games® we can share conversations on how we die in ways that are engaging, uplifting, and even fun. Here are three games that you could play as part of the Conversation project.

  • Knowsy®: Businesses make the mistake of thinking they know their customers’ priorities – until a failed product reveals their misunderstandings. Families make similar mistakes, assuming they know the priorities of their loved ones nearing death. Knowsy makes learning the priorities of others fun. And we can brand Knowsy so that business can learn the priorities of their customers through play (details here). By playing Knowsy on serious topics like death, aging, and health care choices, we can foster the crucial conversations that lead to better outcomes.
  • Product Box Death: ask participants to imagine their ideal death – and then build a box to sell that death to their family. In the process, people creating the box will have the chance to explore their own feelings. And the projective teochniqueofthebox and the result will help them share this conversation with others.
  • Remember the Future Afterlife: ask participants to imagine that they have died and that they are looking backwards on their last 6 months of their life. How will they have lived? What choices will they have made? By “remembering” their death, participants can have better conversations about their life.

I hope that Ellen or a member of her team will find this post, and take me up on the audacious idea that serious games can help create the conversations promoted in the Conversation Project, as I hereby commit that The Innovation Games® Company will create, free of charge, a version of Knowsy for the Conversation Project that can be used to foster conversations on life priorities.

What are your audacious gaming ideas?

The International Appeal of Visual Collaboration Games

We love our work, especially when it challenges us to think about Innovation Games® in new ways. This post was inspired by a two-day strategic planning meeting that we produced last month for the Adobe Localization team. The event was a notable success, and you can read an interview with three members of the Adobe team (Francis Tsang, Senior Director Globalization at Adobe; Janice Campbell, Sr. International Program Manager 2; and Jean-Francois Vanreusel, Director of Localization) here. In this post, though, I’m going to focus on what Adobe taught me about Localization and discuss some ideas on how you can improve your ability to play games with a global audience. Bonus? Fans of Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics (which I love) will see the influence of his work in our games.

Background on the Adobe Event

With more than half of its revenue derived from outside the United States, Adobe has developed an amazing ability to localize its products. From my experience, Adobe’s approach to Localization is just amazing, and it accomplishes many things I didn’t think was even possible (for example, localizing an interface in every sprint). What makes this team extraordinary, however, is that they are simply not content to rest on their laurels. Their desire for dramatic improvement was the motivation for this meeting.

We started planning this event months ago when key members of the Adobe team began reviewing my book as part of their book club. Peter Green, Agile Coach, and Trainer at Adobe systems had previously hired me to help bring the games to Adobe’s Agile development teams, introduced me to the Localization team. We quickly agreed that instead of just reading about the games, the Adobe team would use the games in a two-day strategic planning meeting whose:

… main objective was to develop a common Localization vision and identify short-term and long-term initiatives to progress towards that vision.

Joining us were Innovation Games® Trained Facilitators Peter Green and Deb Colden, who consults extensively on matters of corporate strategy. The planning process was extraordinarily enjoyable, as the Adobe planning team used this project as a way of deeply understanding the games and each phase of the planning. I especially appreciated the team’s focus on assembling the right materials and in recruiting a very helpful helper.

Globalization Is More Than Just Localization

We’ve known for a long time that developing truly global products is more than just localizing the user interface. Certainly, translating strings in fields is an obvious first step. So are developing localized versions of help and technical documentation. And I wrote about localizing such things as installation and log files for enterprise software in my book Beyond Software Architecture.

The Adobe team demonstrated that localization goes much further. They discussed such things as the entire user experience, from advertising and order fulfillment on the website to installation and use of the product. Perhaps more importantly, they discussed how to engage internal and external customers in making continuous improvements to all of these factors, and identified a number of cutting-edge strategies to make this happen. We know that we need to create a similar localized experience for our customers, especially since nearly a third of our sign-ups are from outside the U.S. (And we will.) But today, I want to focus on the international appeal and the globalization/localization of Innovation Games® and Gamestorming Games.

Visual Collaboration Games and Internationalization

Let’s compare and contrast three Instant Play games to explore what makes a visual collaboration game more or less globally accessible. (Note: Clicking on these images will start an instant play game).

Speed Boat SWOT Analysis Pilot

The left-most image is our Innovation Game Speed Boat.  As a pure image of a boat, with no textual labels, it can be used in any culture around the world that understands boating. And while I would expect that different cultures have different styles of boats that they prefer, I suppose that this would work just fine.

The center image is drawn from the SWOT analysis framework. As a well-known strategic analysis framework, I suppose it is acceptable that this game has English labels. But the moment I introduce words, I start to reduce the global appeal of my game.

The right-most image is drawn from the growing collection of public games. And I can’t play it because I can’t read Spanish, though I’m guessing it deals with manufacturing processes. But that’s probably OK, as I’m quite likely not the target market for this game. Unless they want to play this game with people in China.

For a long time, we’ve known that visual game designers need to pick an image that helps players find a solution to the problem they’re trying to solve. This is the power of visual metaphor, and it can range from using a tree to represent the evolutionary growth of a product in Prune the Product Tree to using a stylized face to represent our understanding of a user when playing Empathy Map.

And when you’re playing a game that includes a global audience, like the games we played with the Scrum Alliance, or some of the games we’ve played for the FutureWorks team, you need to ensure that the image is accessible and understandable to the global audience. And a simple way to do this is to avoid text in the image.

Of course, you don’t always have to focus on a globalized image or avoid text. A great example of this is the image that Ryan Peel from Hastings Mutual created when he wanted to understand what people see as the advatages/disadvatages of working with independent insurance agents.


Should Layers and Regions Be Localized?

Of course, the power of our platform is more than just collaborating on an image. The ability to create multidimensional layers and regions on images is what gives our platform such amazing and expressive power (see “How to Make any Doodle or Image a Collaborative Game” and detailed videos on how to do this).

However, in working with Adobe, I realized something quite important: Even if the image is “universal,” the layers and regions are textual. And, in our current platform, these labels are stored in one language. Meaning, if you enter your labels and regions in German, then I’m going to see German — even if I don’t speak German. Likewise, if I create a game with English labels for the layers and regions, all of my players will see English.

I’ve reflected on this quite a bit, and I’m not sure that this is a problem. I’ve played a lot of global games — with as many as eight different countries represented in one online game. In the games I’ve played, one language (usually English) emerges as the “lingua franca” of the players. I’ve discussed this with our several of our facilitators from other countries, and they have pointed out the same thing — one language emerges as the “lingua franca” of the players. This is a natural outcome of the need to collaborate with other players. We may all be using a second or even third language, but until we can find a common language, we can’t communicate. And that common language, when used as the language of the layers and the regions in the game, actually promotes collaboration.


Chats and Shared Language

Our online games provide an online chat facility that allows players to collaborate as they play the game. And while we’ve had some requests to add video and voice capabilities to our games, we’ve also received several emails applauding us for our text-only chat. And while I consider some of the pros/cons of text chatting, you can play an online Pro/Con game and give me your opinion of text-only chatting by playing the Pro/Con game on the right.

Text chatting slows down the play of the game and keeps all players at a similar level of proficiency with the “lingua franca” of the game. Suppose, for example, that you work for SAP as a product manager in a globally distributed product development team and you want to play a “Whole Product Game” to identify changing perceptions of your product. Your native language is German, but since you’re playing with your colleagues from India and America, you choose to play the game in English.

Of course, each of the players playing your game has a “natural advantage” in their native language. But if even a small subset of the players is speaking a different language, everyone suffers. And, while I readily admit that audio and video provide additional information that is critical to communication (tone, inflection, body language and so forth), it is also important to point out that audio and video can intimidate and frustrate the players (for example, it can be hard to hear people, different cultures respond quite differently to visual cues and power distance among players, and the lags in communication can be quite frustrating). In the quest to obtain the best results, these differences are quite important.

Moreover, audio and video are hard to integrate in a way that allows players to privately negotiate during the game, something that we accomplish easily through whispering (a form of person-to-person chatting). And the post-processing of audio/video files is considerably harder.

That said, I’m sure that we’ll be adding audio and video to our games over time. It is natural and inevitable and done correctly, it should enhance the experience and provide yet another option for global gameplay. For now, though, we are pleased that our system provides excellent results for globally distributed teams.

The Global Network of Innovation Games® Trained Facilitators

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that a key strategic advantage that Innovation Games® has over traditional problem-solving and market research techniques is our global network of trained facilitators. We’ve trained consulting facilitators in countries from Korea and South Africa to Germany and Mexico. These remarkable people can help anyone who wishes to leverage the games develop games that fit their local cultures. And we’re happy to help connect you with a facilitation team in another country when you’re trying to produce a global engagement.

Player Appeal Matters More Than International Appeal

The appeal of a visual collaboration game starts with the universal power of a visual image to help people “see” — reason, explore, investigate, examine, study and ultimately solve — problems in new and novel ways. Suppose, for example, that you want to identify ways to improve your sales process by focusing on the buying process of your customers. Inspired by Scott McCloud’s amazing book Understanding Comics (Tundra, 1993), let’s explore three images that you could use for your game (note: only the boat is an instant play game):

Speed Boat Buying Process Home Buying Process

The left-most image is our familiar Speed Boat, whose enduring power is the metaphorical abstraction that it can bring to any process improvement game. It can be easily used to address and buying/selling situation.

The middle image, from Guuui, is less abstract, but still applicable in a large number of purchase scenarios — even though it has English labels.

The final image, from Rey Homes, is very concrete, as it represents the Rey Homes approach to guiding an American home buyer through the home purchase process. And it works great in America, but not so well in Brazil or Belgium, and not at all for buying a Cisco Router.

Ultimately, that’s my point: Innovation Games® online gives you an amazing palette in which to explore what kind of image will engage your audience. And, it is through this engagement that you’ll find the key to unlock the insights and understanding that drive innovation.


The custom-designed serious game allows players to leverage the innovation process known as Triple Helix to address and uncover solutions to large-scale social problems.

Mountain View, CA – July 14, 2011. Trilicious, a custom-designed serious game created by The Innovation Games® Company, debuted today at the ninth Triple Helix Conference at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA. More than 50 academic, government and business leaders played the game, seeking solutions to large-scale issues as corrupt governments, government regulation of intellectual property, housing and education for slums, or greening a region.

Trilicious, like other serious games, leverages the cognitive stimulation found in gameplay to produce unique and unknown insights that wouldn’t be obtained through other methods. With the input of Mae Lin Fung, Professor Henry Etzkowitz and Dr. Marina Ranga, Luke Hohmann, CEO of The Innovation Games® Company, designed the in-person game based on the Triple Helix model, which aims to create innovative solutions to large-scale, complex social issues through the convergence and interaction of universities, industry and government.


“Our goal was to create a fascinating and challenging game of innovation and strategy,” said Luke Hohmann, CEO of The Innovation Games® Company and Trilicious Creator, “in which small groups of players would use their knowledge of the Triple Helix concept to create the best possible solutions to a variety of complex problems.”


Trilicious is, in essence, a board game designed to operate in a similar fashion to such popular games as Risk or Settlers of Catan. Players work together in teams of 5-7 to build creative solutions to a selected problem by combining Knowledge, Innovation and Consensus cards. The Trilicious Game materials include a game board, 12 preset Problem, Knowledge, Innovation and Consensus cards, along with a number of blank “Aha!” cards for players to write down their unique solution elements. “Aha” cards are scored higher than the preset cards and the most creative solution is dubbed the winner.

Pictures and transcriptions of the 10 Trilicious games played at the Triple Helix IX conference are available at here. Also available, under the Creative Commons license, are all game materials, rules, and the game overview.

“It’s our hope that the Trilicious game will continue to spark creativity, innovation and critical thinking on how academia, government, and industry can work together to solve complex problems around the world and benefit the global community,” said Luke Hohmann.

About The Innovation Games® Company
The Innovation Games® Company is the only producer of serious games—online and in-person—for market research. TIGC helps organizations large and small get actionable insights into customer needs and preferences to improve performance, through collaborative play, having worked with such companies as Cisco, Reed Elsevier, Yahoo!, Qualcomm, SAP, Emerson Climate Technologies and more. To learn more about Innovation Games® Online, our online game platform for real-time, distributed collaboration and Knowsy, our brand engagement platform, visit


The Innovation Games® Company launches IndieGoGo project to bring Budget Games concept to tens of thousands of citizens worldwide.

Mountain View, CA – July 5, 2011. The Innovation Games® Company (TIGC) and the city of San Jose, CA, made history on January 29, 2011, by bringing together 100s of ordinary citizens, community leaders and city officials to play games to solve the city’s budget crisis. The collaborative in-person game was specially designed by TIGC to give ordinary citizens the opportunity to negotiate with each other, listen to their neighbors and city officials and work together to prioritize possible funding cuts for the upcoming city budget.

The game’s success, outlined in such media outlets as the Huffington Post and the San Jose Mercury News, not only gave the Mayor’s Office actionable input from citizens, but inspired TIGC to think big and bring the in-person Budget Game online, enabling tens of thousands of individuals play games for civic good. To fund development of this specially designed game for government, TIGC has launched a project on the crowd-funding site, IndieGoGo.

“Our experience with the city of San Jose has convinced us that games are a powerful tool for civic engagement,” said Luke Hohmann, CEO and Founder of the Innovation Games® Company. “Thus we’re seeking funds to extend our existing in-person version of Budget Games into an online version. Instead of engaging hundreds of citizens, we want to powerfully connect tens of thousands or even millions of motivated citizens with their elected officials—and we need help from the citizens of the world to get this done.”

TIGC has assembled a team of developers who are ready and waiting to help put the Budget Games online and hired a summer intern who has already started working on our outreach program. The company has also trained more than 400 facilitators in cities across the U.S. and around the world, and attracted the  interest of several major corporations willing to provide hosting and analytic services to help cities hosting games take action against the results.

“Elected official need to understand the preferences of their constituents to make the tough choices necessary to resolve our budget crises,” continues Hohmann. “Taking the Budget Games online will enable massive engagement and encouragement engagement, based not on political persuasion, but on informed discourse.

Get involved and follow the project’s progress on IndieGoGo.

About The Innovation Games® Company
The Innovation Games® Company is the only producer of serious games—online and in-person—for market research. TIGC helps organizations large and small get actionable insights into customer needs and preferences to improve performance, through collaborative play, having worked with such companies as Cisco, Reed Elsevier, Yahoo!, Qualcomm, SAP, Emerson Climate Technologies and more. To learn more about Innovation Games® Online, our online game platform for real-time, distributed collaboration and Knowsy, our brand engagement platform, visit