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.

Serious Games for Strategic Planning

Who hasn’t shuddered when you get the email about required attendance at an all-day strategy meeting? In common parlance that translates to 8 hours trapped in a conference room with PowerPoint, coffee, and catered lunches—if you’re lucky. Strategy meetings don’t have to be death by PowerPoint, though. They can be engaging, profitable and energizing—especially if the participants are actively involved. Our recent experience producing a two-day strategic planning meeting for Adobe Systems’ Globalization team is proof of that day-long meetings don’t have to be boring.

Three Adobe team members—Francis Tsang, Senior Director of Globalization; Jean-Francois Vanreusel, Director of Localization; and Janice Campbell, Sr. International Program Manager 2 – recently shared with us their perspectives on how and why using Innovation Games® was crucial to the event’s success.

Why did you decide to use Innovation Games for your strategy meeting?

Spider Web and Speed Boat games on the wall

Janice: We had read Luke’s book, Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products through Collaborative Play, in our Globalization Book Club, and decided to find a way to “put into play” our learnings from the book. Much to our delight, Luke was already working with some product teams at Adobe. What if Luke could help us drive the creation of our 2012 localization roadmap and three-year strategy?

Can you tell us a little bit about the strategy meeting and how you used Innovation Games?

Francis: It was a two-day meeting, with 40 participants, focusing on Adobe’s Localization Strategy. We used the games to help us do short-term and long-range planning around localization and long-range infrastructure needs—not only which languages and problems we may face in our globalization efforts, but also what kind of new localization experiences we want for our end users.

Who attended?

Janice: Along with members of our Globalization team, we invited internal stakeholders closest to the international customer. They represented CSO, e-commerce, product marketing, field marketing, developer relations and CHL, and regions such as APAC, EMEA, and LATAM. The event took place during two full days at the end of August.

Sometimes people are concerned about the concept of serious games and whether the techniques can really be used to do “real work”? Did you have any reservations about the games?

Francis: To be honest, I was kind of skeptical in the beginning—how can we do this with 40 people over two days, but after the two days, I found the experience extremely useful. It was much more useful than a cut-and-dry strategy planning session with PowerPoint. The games force you to come down from a conceptual level to an experiential level.

We were a little bit nervous before the event because we had never experienced this approach. We had also invited senior managers from other teams, and they wouldn’t have shown much patience if things had gone wrong. We took a risk, but it definitely paid off. The energy level during all event was high. We addressed very serious problems. Using games helped us change our perspective on these problems and generate more creative solutions

What about Innovation Games made the event a success?

Francis: Putting 40 people together for two days is a huge commitment of time for a company. It’s hard to keep people engaged during 16 hours of strategic planning. Thanks to Innovation Games, 90 percent were in the meeting the entire time. With traditional presentations, you would lose half the people, but the games kept the participants engaged.

Janice: We found that participants built better relationships with each other and communication channels opened up. We gained valuable insight into how an international customer interacts with our products — from the web to software purchase/download to documentation. Using games was a fun way of extracting serious ideas and it allowed people to be more creative and free in their thinking; they were less fearful of peer pressure in vocalizing their ideas.

Three games of Prune the Product Tree

Which game played during the event had the most impact? Why?

Francis: While we played many games during the two days, three Innovation Games stand out in my mind: Prune the Product Tree, Speed Boat and Buy a Feature.

Prune the Product Tree, for example, forced us to think about the sequence of events. It helped us understand benefits and costs. Speed Boat is always good to help understand what is slowing you down. Planning is often a one-way street, but Innovation Games counteract that. The gameplay forces you to visualize the possible anchors. The metaphor helps you understand the big picture/visualize the problem. The most revealing aspect of Buy a Feature was learning what assumptions play a part in ranking options. Specifically, it lets you see what a participant’s self-imposed limitations are.

What really stood out for me, though, is that the act of playing these games gave us insight into how different people look at problems, the different kinds of thought processes in play. We saw this thanks to the debrief process; the act of presenting the game results to the larger group meant other participants got to see how others thought. With other methods, it’s hard to get to the true story.

The Show & Tell game helped create a friendly, playful mood while helping us highlight critical issues in the way we localize our products. After the event, many participants still referred to the game to justify more investments in certain areas. The Prune the Product Tree game is a close second for me as it generated some very innovative ideas.

Janice: Stories from the field, in the form of the Show & Tell game. While often poignant or funny, the gameplay helped us experience first hand the hoops international customers sometimes have to jump through when using our products.

Were there any unexpected benefits?

Francis: The game mechanism helped us look at strategy from a different perspective. We gained unique insight. For example, in strategy, you need to look at what could happen, what would happen. The games helped us visualize these scenarios; they helped us model the future.

Jean-Francois: The game-oriented approach really helped build stronger relationships between all our participants. People flew in from around the world to attend the event and didn’t always know each other. Games are an effective way for people to quickly “gel” together, collaborate and deliver great ideas.

Would you hold the event again? What would you do differently?

Jean-Francois: Yes, we would definitely conduct such event in the future. However, I would make the point to include International customers. It would be priceless to hear their stories (Show & Tell) about how they use our products and have the opportunity to collaborate with them on building solutions they seek.


To learn more about Adobe’s Globalization Strategy meeting, check out Luke Hohmann’s blog post,
“The International Appeal of Visual Collaboration Games”

Success Stories: Quova: Innovation Games for Sales Training

Tami Carter, VP of Marketing, interviews Steven Dodds, Quova’s VP of Global Sales and Services about Innovation Games’ use for Sales Training.

Steven Dodds, VP of Global Sales and Services at Quova, recently shared how Quova incorporated Innovation Games into sales training to encourage the sharing of best practices. Click on the image above or this link to hear how Quova used Spider Web and Remember the Future to explore relationships between and inside account and improve sales performance.

Intellectual Ventures, Software Patents, NPR and Innovation Games


Today National Public Radio ran a story on software patents titled When Patents Attack. Featured prominently in this piece was Intellectual Ventures, a company that has amassed a significant patent portfolio.The article raises some very thought-provoking questions about software patents and whether or not these patents are realizing the original goals of the patent system in promoting innovation. I won’t deny that the patent system, especially as it relates to software patents, could be improved. Unfortunately, the NPR article focuses only on software patents, and the real situation is considerably more complex. In this post I will explain how the global IP community has been using Innovation Games® to more deeply understand ever-changing patent landscape, with a hopefully more comprehensive perspective than that offered by NPR.

Three Years of Innovation Games Exploring Intellectual Property and Patents

For the past three years, Joff Wild, Managing editor at the IP Media Group, has hired The Innovation Games® Company to design and produce Innovation Games sessions in conjunction with the IP Business Congress. We started in 2009, with Rob Sterne and Ron Laurie helping co-produce our first event that was focused on the emerging role of the Chief Intellectual Property Officer. These games, which were attended by some of the world’s most prominent IP experts, allowed us to clarify the full scope and impact of the CIPO  (see the full report here).

The 2009 games were so successful that in 2010 Joff asked us to produce two events: a series of online Buy a Feature games to identify the most important topics facing CIPOs and a set of in-person games to explore the highest priority topics in greater depth. The key topics report is here while the full report of the 2010 games can be found here.

For the 2011 games, Joff asked us to design two events. The first was again focused on CIPOs and their perspective of the emerging future. You can read the full report here. The second, much larger event, was focused on a number of questions relevant to the global IP community. Participation in this second event included CIPOs, industry experts, and even Michael Pierantozzi, Director of Global Licensing Marketing at Intellectual Ventures. This report is not yet available from Joff Wild, but as soon as it has been published I’ll make it available.

Three years of Innovation Games data exploring IP and patent strategy from the world’s leading IP professionals gives us a unique perspective that can help us understand the enormous complexity of the patent system.

The CIPOs Worst Nightmare: The IP Policy Pendulum Breaks

One of the games that we asked CIPOs to play this year was My Worst Nightmare. Here is how we described the game to the CIPOs at the event:

Edvard Munch painted The Scream in 1893. It is a vivid embodiment of how many IP professionals feel when considering how the world of Intellectual Property may evolve.

In today’s session we want to understand how you might consider the future of IP. Not the good, wonderful, light, easy and easy future. Instead, we want to explore the dark, scary future that can often happen when policy makers make decisions that are not aligned with that people need in the future.

What’s the worst outcome that you can imagine that could occur in 2015 in the following areas:
1.    IP Policy
2.    IP Transaction Market Place
3.    Corporate Functions / Role of the CIPO
4.    International Cooperation / Open Innovation

We then assembled the CIPOs into groups and asked them to tackle this especially hard subject. One group, whose members represented a diverse group of companies (not just software) produced a result that is directly relevant to the NPR article. They called it the IP Policy Pendulum, and drew it like this:

IP Policy Pendulum
IP Policy Pendulum

Here is how I described this in our report to Joff and the larger IP Community:

IP policy can be thought of as a delicate, multidimensional pendulum in which the path of the bob represents the balance that must exist in the various dimensions of global IP Policy that must be managed in order to create successful outcomes. Key dimensions captured in this diagram include:

Domains: Technology, Biotech/Pharma, Small Business and the IP Marketplace
Qualities or Aspects Influenced by IP Policy: Strength, Speed, Quality

In the lower right, the picture depicts that will happen if any one dimension becomes too powerful: The bob will snap and become a terrible bomb that will destroy our future (as represented by a school bus filled with children).

In discussing this picture, the participants noted that part of the motivation of the metaphor was the acknowledgment that IP policy must be balanced between competing interests. Specifically, if IP policy becomes too favorable to the technology industry, it will “snap” because it will fail to meet the needs of the Biotech/Pharma industry. Similarly, if IP Policy is changed to emphasize “Quality” of IP (notably patents) over the “speed” of patent-processing, innovation may suffer because it takes too long to secure protection. Conversely, emphasizing speed over quality creates too much “junk” IP.

Participants were well aware that they are often paid to advocate positions that favor their domain or perspective at the risk of causing the bob to “snap”. Participants expected that governing bodies would continue to manage the balancing act represented by the multidimensional IP Policy Pendulum.

In addition to this nightmare, CIPOs also discussed the dangers of patent licensing, patent monetization, and the impact of patent trolls (read the full report for these details).

What NPR Missed About Patents

A careful examination of this and the other data we’ve generated through our games suggests that NPR missed several critically important items:

  1. The patent system is, in fact, a complex system. As so eloquently portrayed by the CIPOs, changes that benefit software patents could easily have a much worse impact in other industries. And determining what is, and isn’t, software isn’t so easy. I wish that NPR would have covered other perspectives for greater balance.
  2. It is a global software industry governed by a global IP system. NPR, for example, didn’t cover patent system harmonization, which many experts contend puts the US at a global disadvantage in managing IP assets.
  3. Inventors do not determine the patentability of an invention. The USPTO determines patentability. And the USPTO must follow the laws. NPR treated this far too lightly. Any sustainable patent reform must include what is, and is not, considered patentable, and provide the USPTO with the best possible tools to allow this to happen.
  4. CIPOs and industry experts also recommend legal reform, with greater oversight provided as to who can sue whom, and on what grounds, and where.

Several years of producing Innovation Games for the leading global experts in the IP industry leads me to believe that while the IP systems we have created are not perfect, they’re pretty good. And history has demonstrated that when change is needed, the global IP community responds. I remain confident that the IP community will eventually find ways to improve software patents that genuinely promotes the innovation that creates better software.

Innovation Games CEO in KCBS story on Small Business and Social Media

CEO & founder Luke Hohmann was interviewed yesterday by KCBS news reporter Matt Biggler after his panel participation on how small businesses can put social media to use to grow and prosper at the “Growing your Small Business with Social Media” conference in San Jose, CA.

[blockquote cite=”authorname” align=””]”We think of Facebook as something that’s been around for awhile because it’s so well-known, but in reality Facebook is still new, and so is social media, so there’s a lot of experimentation still to be done in this field, so it’s very exciting,” said Luke. [/blockquote]

In addition to speaking on the panel and spreading the word about how Knowsy Knows can help businesses drive repeat business, The Innovation Games Company also designed and facilitated a special version of Spider Web to explore the connections small businesses have with each other. Read the entire KCBS story (including audio) here.

Innovation Games at the San Jose Shop Local Social Media Conference

We love the chance to make conferences and events seriously fun through Innovation Games®. We’re going to be playing games again on June 23, 2011 in San Jose. Come join us – and you might win your own custom copy of Knowsy!


One of the most important ways you can improve your local business is by learning to leverage social relationships with other local businesses. These relationships, which are based on geography, complimentary services, and shared customers, can help you better serve your existing customers, introduce your business to new customers, and provide you with fun ways to leverage social media. Unfortunately, discovering relationships isn’t always much fun. Where do you begin? Right here. Right now.

The San Jose Shop Local team has asked The Innovation Games® Company to design a fun game to discover the relationships that exist between small businesses attending the June 23, 2011 Social Media conference. To play our game, simply create relationships with the other businesses at the conference. You earn points based on the kinds of relationships you’re creating.
  • Earn 5 points for every relationship that is within 10 miles of your business.
  • Earn 20 points for every relationship that is based on potential complimentary services. Use our specially printed 5×8 cards to capture your ideas on complimentary services.
  • Earn 10 points for every idea that you have for using social media to promote your relationship. Use specially printed 5×8 cards to capture your ideas on ways to use social media for complimentary services.
Example: Sallee owns a pizzeria and John owns a paint supply store. They are located within the same shopping center, but haven’t really done any work together. Sallee and John both place their business cards on the map and draw a relationship between their companies. This earns them 5 points for geography. Sallee then suggests having a “pizza and paint” party, where you get a 20% discount for pizza whenever you purchase 3 or more gallons of paint, and earning both Sallee and John 20 more points. John earns another 10 points for both Sallee and John by suggesting that they promote this on their respective web sites.
Try to get as many points as you can (hint: Bring LOTS of business cards – you’ll need them!). As you can guess, working with other business owners increases your chances of winning the top prize. Here are the prizes, as determined by The Innovation Games® Company based on our analysis of the results.
  • 3rd place: A free copy of the book Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products Through Collaborative Play by Luke Hohmann, Founder and CEO of The Innovation Games® Company
  • 2nd place: A free seat in a two-day class on Innovation Games taught by an Innovation Games Qualified Instructor
  • 1st place: A free, one year license to your own white-label version of Knowsy, the brand engagement platform designed for small business; this offer includes all design and art services.
All participants will be given a free copy of the result based. Participation is voluntary.

On Choosing a Game: Goals, Verbs, Nouns and Context

Designing and producing effective Innovation Games® and other serious games boils down to gaining an understanding of these four key elements: goals, verbs, nouns and context. This post explains how to use these four key elements to design and produce great games, drawing on some examples from our client successes over the years.



Goals are pretty straightforward: They are what you want to accomplish, ideally framed as a higher level business outcome. For example, you might be working for a company who wants to increase the average price per sale of large deals. Alternatively, you might want to improve your New Product Development (NPD) process by getting better concepts from the “fuzzy front end”.

Framing your goals in terms of measurable outcomes (“increase ASP by 10%”, or “generate 100 ideas that pass the first gate in our gate review process”) helps ensure that you’re choosing the right game – or no game at all. To illustrate, let’s look at two closely related business goals, both related to portfolio management.

A few years ago, Sallee Peterson, Senior Vice President of Global Customer Care for VeriSign, asked us to help her team prioritize a list of 46 projects. The business goal was to leverage the “wisdom of the crowd”, her globally distributed team, in selecting the best projects. (The careful reader will note that this last phrase is part of the context; I’ll return to this in a bit). We have a number of prioritization games, so this initial goal was already a good fit for the games.

Another leader contacted us to see how we might be able to use the games to communicate the selection of projects within his company’s portfolio as they progressed through their gate process. In this case, the business goal of communication is not well served by the games. We recommended a simpler approach: a Wiki with an RSS feed and small, personal video updates on project status prepared by the project leaders. And it is easier than you think, especially if you own a Cisco Flip. I absolutely love my Flip, and its ease of use continues to transform how we use video here at work.



Verbs are the actions that we take to accomplish our goals. Indeed, I am starting to think that if a business goal cannot be directly related to a verb, then it isn’t a good fit for the games.

Returning to Sallee’s portfolio selection problem, the verb that equated to the goal was to prioritize. Which is an amazingly powerful and common verb in business? We prioritize sales deals. We prioritize product features. We prioritize market segments. We even prioritize personas into “primary” and “secondary” personas.

When teaching the games, I will often take a few minutes to list as many business verbs as possible in five minutes or less. One group at Cisco generated more than 30 verbs, including generate, create, define, elaborate, group, establish, plan and develop.

As you gain experience in the games, you’ll also gain experience in how the tense informs the business goals. Most of the time the tense is in the future, and you have to determine the time scale to determine the time frame of action (tactical or near term; strategic or long-term). Other aspects of how the verbs of your business goals are used are important, so pay attention to the verbs associated with the goals.



Verbs are useless without the nouns they operate on. We prioritize sales deals, product features, the location where we’re going to have our corporate off-site, which customers we’re going to invite to our strategic advisory board meeting and so forth. The nouns/objects of the games become the metaphors we use in the visual collaboration games, the items in a Buy a Feature game, the objects and relationships between them in a Spider Web game and so forth.

Once you understand the goals, verbs, and nouns of the project, you’ll be well on your way to selecting one or two games. Sometimes you don’t even realize how quickly this happens, so it is good to take a step back to ensure that you’ve got the right goals, verbs and nouns.

To illustrate, a few years ago Aladdin Knowledge Systems (since acquired by SafeNet) hired us to design and help produce a two-day sales training course for its worldwide distributors for a major new product launch, HASP SRM. Acting as strategic account managers, these distributors help SafeNet’s custom design and implement comprehensive Digital Rights Management solutions.

A simple statement of the goal was to train the distributors. A better goal was to focus on the actual outcomes a well-trained distributor would produce: more sales. We get more sales when the distributors can sell (verb!) HASP (noun!). We, therefore, designed a game based on Product Box, in which the distributors created boxes that demonstrated their ability to sell in complex situations.

To see if this was the right design, we had to compare it against the last element: context.



Context refers to such factors as who will be playing the game, their physical location, how many players will be included, whether or not the game will be part of a larger event and so forth.

Returning to Sallee’s challenge, the context included a 230+ team of customer support employees distributed across four locations around the world. In this case, the only option was to use Buy a Feature online and construct a “feature tournament”. The resulting design enabled approximately 60% of the global workforce to participate in the games.

Changing the context will change how you design and produce the games. NetApp, Wyse, and Rally Software Development are clients who have used the games within customer advisory board meetings. In all of these cases, the small in-person context motivated them to use in-person versions of the games.

Note that in these examples the selection of the players was also quite straightforward: Sallee wanted to include her employees, while the other examples wanted to include key/large accounts. Sometimes, however, choosing players isn’t so straightforward, and you have to develop careful screening criteria to ensure the players are producing results that enable you to realize your goals.


Two Kinds of Verbs

It is important to realize that there are often two verbs associated with a well-designed and -produced the set of games. The first verb is the ultimate action that the client who commissioned the games wants to take. The second verb is the verb that is associated with the selection of the games. These may or may not be the same verbs.

To illustrate, let’s one more time refer to Sallee and the VeriSign portfolio games. The ultimate business goal of the customer care projects was to improve the quality of customer care. To serve this goal Sallee needed to prioritize her projects. An online Buy a Feature tournament was the best way to accomplish this goal. And by including as many of her employees as she could in the prioritization process, Sallee also created “global buy-in” for the results of the games.

Of course, Sallee and her team still needed to implement the selected projects. And while games like Remember the Future and Product Box can help plan projects, and games like Start Your Day and Spider Web can identify hidden requirements, and games like Speed Boat can identify potential risks, ultimate Sallee and her team needed to implement the selected projects.

While this post has been informed by years of playing games, special thanks go to Jenna Cline from Cisco, as our conversation on the nouns and verbs of collaboration enabled me to think that much more clearly about this topic. Thanks also to Harbinder Kang, also from Cisco, who further challenged these ideas.

Innovation Games®, Grameen America and PDMA 2010

I’m writing this post on the plane flight back to CA from the 2010 PDMA conference. If you’ve been following the PDMA website or #innovgames on twitter, you know that we partnered with a number of companies to produce a powerful set of Innovation Games® and other serious games to attack poverty and to help Grameen America. We’re in the process of compiling our results, which will be published at the PDMA web site. I’m writing this post to capture a few thoughts on the experience.

First, a recap. The games and questions that we tackled at the conference were as follows:

  • At the Games for Democracy booth, we used a variation of Give Them a Hot Tub to explore ways in which Grameen America can improve fundraising.
  • Accept Software used a specially designed performance game to help Grameen America demonstrate success through soft and hard metrics.
  • Decision Analyst used Remember the Future to explore the critical sequence of activities that entrepreneurs must engage to continue their success in their second year of business.
  • Innovaro used  Spider Web to identify and explore the relationships that social entrepreneurs must create to create sustainable success.
  • Ideas To Go used  Buy a Feature to identify projects that PDMA members feel will have the greatest impact in attacking poverty from around the world.

Before we played these games, we used Knowsy to briefly orient attendees on the give key attributes of Grameen America Entrepreneurs.


Here are some of my impressions of the experience.

  • People really liked Knowsy, our new game for the iPad. Dan Pink liked it so much that he promised a review! Perhaps more importantly, people who know quite a lot about traditional choice modeling research could see the advantages of Knowsy – choice modeling as a game.
  • Speed games – games designed to take less than 10 minutes to play – generate powerful insights when the players are experienced in the domain. That said, I still stand by my rule of thumb that the online games take about an hour to play and that in-person games take about 90 minutes to 2 hours.
  • Game cocktails work. Having multiple games enabled conference attendees to explore the issues of poverty from different perspectives. Keep this in mind when you’re designing your games. But, don’t overdue it, either. More than 3-4 games in a single day isn’t fun. It’s work.
  • Celebrate small collaborations. The nature of the conference required us to design games that relied less on real-time collaboration and more on shared state social collaboration, where one person would generate a partial result and another person would extend it. This works well in a conference environment.
  • We needed online games. We originally designed some online games but didn’t use them because the facility didn’t provide reliable wireless internet. That’s really a shame, as online games would have significantly enhanced the experience. Fortunately, a lot of attendees expressed an interest in continuing the conversation and we may engage an online game.

Overall, this was an incredibly powerful experience. I’m very proud of everyone who participated and thankful for the enthusiastic endorsement of the games by the PDMA. We’re now actively exploring other ways in which the games can help the PDMA accomplish its goals.

I’d like to especially thank Ryan Peel from Hastings Mutual and Cory Foy from NetObjectives. Ryan and Cory are highly skilled, trained facilitators who generously donated their time to this event. It was a real pleasure to have them at the conference.

Want to play online games? Through Oct 31, 2010, get a 50% discount for any account level for one year by using the discount code pdma2010.