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January 23, 2013

Fun at Work (aka team-strengthening games)

January 23, 2013

I play a lot of games (board, card, video). I’m kind of a dork like that. But seriously, games are fun. They bring me together with my friends. Some games give me an opportunity to flex parts of my brain that go unused most of the time. Games occupy an enormous part of my leisure time.

More and more I am also noticing how a lot of games are great for developing interpersonal understanding and bolstering teams. “So,” I said to myself, “why not introduce some of these sorts of games to our SmallBox audience under the guise of organizational health insights.” Honestly, I feel like there are a number of outstanding games, from the ancient and simple to the new and absurdly complex, that can be instructive for teams and individuals. I intend this to be the first part of an ongoing series. We’ll see how well it works out…

Most games thrive on competition. They’re designed to determine a “winner.” Poker is all about taking someone (everyone) else’s money by being the luckiest or most deceptive. Trivial pursuit is all about having the best memory, or being lucky enough to draw cards with “easy” questions. Hell, even Candyland teaches kids to try and get to the finish line first! So where are the games that build cooperation and understanding amongst groups?

I’m going to tell you about one of my current favorites, Hanabi.

Aside from being a simple and fun game that anyone from preadolescents to octogenarians can enjoy, Hanabi is also an interesting study in the development of mutual understanding. Players must use limited forms of communication to get teammates to do what is best for the team. It is a game based on blind trust and cooperation. There is a mutual goal, and the team must use limited resources and time to accomplish said goal. Sounds a lot like another day on the job, right?

The rules and setup for the most basic version of the game are simple. There are five suits of cards. Each suit has cards numbered one to five (distributed thusly: 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5). A small group of players, three to five, arranges itself around a table. Each is dealt four cards. Players cannot look at their own cards, but can see the cards of all other players. Players take turns doing one of three things: giving a clue, playing a card or discarding a card.

The trick to this game is to get other players to play the cards you want them to play in the order you want them to play them. What makes this difficult is that there are only two types of clues that can be given to a player, either ALL of the cards of one color they possess, or ALL of the cards of one number they possess. So, for example, I could tell another player which of their cards are green, or which of their cards are threes.

Adding a layer of complexity to this simple system is the fact that there are a finite number of clues (eight, to begin with). Each time someone gives a clue, a clue token is used up. Clue tokens can be regained in two ways, by either discarding a card or playing a five card successfully.

The game can end in failure in any number of ways. If a five is discarded, the game is over (because there is only one of each five). If the last of any other type of card (red three, for example) is discarded when it has not yet been successfully played, the game is over. If there are three failed attempts to play cards, the game is over.

So, the team is left in a precarious position. Using a simple, shared language, the team must complete a fairly complex task with numerous steps, all done in the proper order, with very few resources and with little room for error. Sounds a lot like any number of tasks that teams undertake on any given day, and yet it remains fun and can build a stronger team.

But why?

First, the team has a shared goal. It is a challenging goal, but one that is attainable. There is something very rewarding about figuring out a complex problem, and that sense of accomplishment tends to be amplified when it can be shared with friends and colleagues.

Second, everyone on the team is on the same level. Everyone must contribute, and everyone has the same resources at their disposal. There is no room for ego or selfishness, and neither would be rewarded within the system of the game. This is a true opportunity to cooperate, not just to be handed a directive with the expectation of execution from a higher-ranking entity.

Perhaps what makes this game most interesting from an organizational health perspective is the process by which a team will create, iterate on, and perfect its own language and systems. Sure, on the surface a team member might only be able to give two types of clues, but what can those two clues convey even if the words do not? How might a team learn from its failures in order to adapt its own processes? What sort of wiggle room is there within the rules to create standards and best practices? Here is an example of how such a system has come into being with some of my friends.

There is an opportunity for organizations to use Hanabi as a model for how mutual understanding is created, how it is spread, and how such a system flourishes when there is complete cooperation and buy-in.

There is no more practical model for achieving success than one in which a goal is attained through true cooperation built upon mutually constructed systems and processes.

What other activities have you experienced that can help organizations build mutual understanding, create shared goals and form stronger teams?

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