On my list of creative management solutions to dire situations, I offer the rolling whiteboard.
The rolling whiteboard was a curiosity at the start-up. Not a full size whiteboard, but a door-sized whiteboard on wheels, suitable for rolling into conference rooms and cubicles alike. I never knew who owned it; I just grabbed it in a moment of desperation.
It was end game. The time in the project where you pay for every single shortcut you’ve taken, for every specification you didn’t write, and for all the warnings from engineers that you’ve ignored. All the data is grim. Bug arrival rates are skyrocketing while bug resolution rates are pathetic because, uh, well, engineers are still finishing features.
Like I said, grim.
The endless stream of bad news was grating on everyone. We were already three weeks into working weekends with no end in sight. A normally pleasantly pessimistic engineering staff had gone uncomfortably quiet. Everyone was staring at “the date we can’t miss” and thinking, “I guarantee we’re missing it”.
I needed a game.
An Entertaining System
As I said before, geeks are system thinkers. We see the world as a very complex but knowable flowchart where there are a finite number of inputs, which cause a similarly finite set of outputs. This impossible flowchart gives us a comfortable illusion of control and an understanding of a chaotic word, but its existence is a handy side effect of a life staring at, deducing, and building systems. It’s also why we love games — they’re just dolled up systems — and the more you understand this fascination with games, the better you’ll be at managing us.
As with all mental excursions with geeks, there’s a well-defined process by which we consume a game, and it goes like this:
- Optimization, Repetition, and Win
Discovery — From confusion to control
The initial joy of a game for the geek is discovery. This is a delicate balance of confusion and progressive disclosure. A game is initially attractive because it starts chaotic and unknowable, but even in the chaos, there’s always a hint of the rules… of structure. What are the specific rules that govern this game? And how might I learn them?
A geek is searching for a single source of joy in this initial state. It’s the sense of discovery and progress toward a currently unknown goal. I want to see the engine that defines this particular universe… I want to see its edges. We’re looking for those edges because as soon as we find this wall, we know this is a containable and knowable place and that is comforting because the game becomes a controllable thing.
There’s creative flexibility in rule discovery and pacing, and it tends to be a function of the size and the intent of the game. The beauty of Tetris is that the initial rules are immediately obvious. But the wonderful curse of a massive online game like World of Warcraft is that while there are rules, they are vast and, as we’ll see in a moment, they are changeable.
This discovery is the hook where a geek is going to know in just a few minutes whether this particular game suits their particular appetite. But getting past the initial phases of discovery doesn’t mean you’ve successfully engaged the geek. The real test is…
Optimization, Repetition, and Win — A paradox and a warning
With the basic rule set discovered and defined, the process of optimization begins. Ok, I get how it’s played, how do I win? This is the phase where, now equipped with the rules, the geek attempts to use them to their advantage.
There’s a discoverable structure to the rules. There’s a correct order, which, when followed, offers a type of reward. It’s the advantage of thinking three blocks ahead in Tetris or holding onto those beguiling hypercubes in Bejeweled. This is the advanced discovery of the system around the rules that leads to exponential geek joy.
There’s a paradox and a warning inside of optimization and repetition.
The paradox involves the implications of winning. Geeks will furiously work to uncover the rules of a game and then use those rules to determine how they might win. But the actual discovery of how to win is a buzz kill. The thrill, the adrenalin, comes from the discovery, hunt, and eventual mastery of the unknown, which, confusingly, means if you want to keep a geek engaged in a game you can’t let them win, even though that’s exactly what they think they want.
Think of it like this — does it bug you that there’s an absolute high score to Pac-Man? It bugs me.
To get around this entertainment-killing paradox in subscription-based games like World of Warcraft, game designers freely change rule sets as part of regular updates. The spin is, “We’re improving playability” which translates into, “The geeks are close to figuring it out and we can’t have that because they’ll stop paying.”
This paradox does not apply to all games. It’s hard to argue that there is much more to learn about Tetris, but folks continue to play it incessantly, which leads to the warning.
There’s a socially frightening act inside of optimization that normal humans don’t get and it’s the calming inanity of intense repetition. In a game like World of Warcraft, many of the tasks involve an exceptional amount of repetition. Repetition like, “Hey, go kill 1,000 of these guys and come back and I’ll give you something cool.” Yeah, 1,000. If each kill take a minute, you’re talking about sixteen hours of mindless hacking and slashing. This is not a task that requires skill or thought… and that’s the point.
If you walked in and looked over my shoulder at troll kill #653, you’d think I’d dropped into a twitchy-fugue-like mental state and I have. I am… a machine. Machines don’t have a care in the world, and that’s a fine place to be. This is the act of mentally removing ourselves from a troubled planet full of messy people, combined with our ability to find pleasure in the act of completing a small, well-defined task. This is our ability to lose ourselves in repetition and it is task at which we are highly effective.
In the defense of game designers, there are no quests that read “Go waste sixteen hours of your life doing nothing”. They are more elegant with their descriptions; they splice all sorts of different tasks together to distract you from the dull inanity of large, laborious tasks. But they know that part of what makes us tick is the micro-pleasure we get from obsessively scratching the task itch in pursuit of the achievement.
As I’ve never designed and shipped a game, I can confidently and ignorantly say the compelling magic in games comes from the design in optimization and repetition. This is the portion of the game where we spend the most time and effort and derive the most pleasure. It is this abstract mental state we long for when we’re not playing.
But there is one last phase to consider, achievement.
Achievement — Who cares if you win by yourself?
Once a geek has learned the game by discovering how to win, they become interested in advanced winning. They’re interested in how their win fits into the rest of the world. They want to compare and measure and answer the social question, “Is my pile of win bigger than yours?” They believe they’ve mastered the game, but reputation — achievement — is nothing unless someone else can see and acknowledge it.
Before the Internet, winning was a private thing. You entered your three-letter name into the local Pac-Man machine and then anonymously stumbled off in search of Donkey Kong. In an interconnected world, games became social, and once we discovered each other in these virtual worlds, we looked for a means to compare our feats. We began to understand that achievement was not just becoming great at a game, but being recognized for being great.
Achievement can be as simple as a score, a numeric means of comparison, but the more sophisticated the game, the more complex the achievements. In World of Warcraft, you’ll be busily into your seventh hour of mind-numbing troll extinction when you see that night elf run by with… what’s that? A staff… where the hell did she get that staff? It’s sweet. My world will not be complete until I own that staff. Now, what was four more hours of troll killing becomes the quest for the staff.
There’s no well-defined rule that says, “To win, you need this staff”. Sure, it might make those next 200 kills easier, but that is not your entire motivation. For you, the staff is your own personal badge of mastery, and you don’t wear a badge for yourself, you wear it for others to see.
Most achievements do have an empirical value, but that’s not what makes them important. The point of an achievement is to have someone you know or don’t know look at your Violet Proto-Drake and say, “Holy crap, do you know what he had to do to pull that off?” It’s wondering exactly how far you’ll go to get the Legendary badge on Stack Overflow.
In a world where we spend a ton of time with people we’ll never meet, achievements are the currency of respect and identity.
The Rules of the Game
Now that we understand how games float the geek boat, we can tease out rules you can use to build your own business-centric games. This is will take a creative leap on your part because I don’t know how your particular situation is grim. Perhaps your bug count is crap like mine? Maybe you can’t hire fast enough? Maybe you can’t measure how screwed you are? I don’t know what game you need, but I know you need to follow the universal rules of games:
The rules need to be clear. Whatever game you design must stand up to scrutiny. Test the rules with selected geeks before you roll it out. Find the holes in your game before you’re standing in front of the team describing a game that makes no sense. Ambiguity, contradiction and omission are the death of any good game.
The rules must be inviolable. Enforce rules with an iron fist. A rule not followed is twice as bad as a poorly defined one. A violation of the rules is an affront to a geek. They react violently to violations of the rules because it’s an indication that the system is not working. Rules make a game fair, and when they stop being followed, the geeks stop playing.
The playing of the game must be inclusive, visible, and broadcasted. Include everyone on the team. Those not on the team should be aware of the progress and implications.
Only use money as a reward as a last resort. It’s a knee-jerk management move to use money as an incentive. Problem is, money creates drama. Money makes everyone serious, and while you may be in dire straits as you design your game, you don’t want the team stressing about who is getting paid; you want them to stress about the work.
This is not to say that rewards in a motivational game are verboten, but step away from the money and think about achievements. One of the best trophies I’ve awarded was a horrifically ugly ceramic blue rhino the size of a pit bull. The winner proudly displayed the rhino achievement in his office for years.
It’s not a game. Just because I’m using the word game all over this article doesn’t mean it’s trivial, simple, or something not to be taken seriously. Your geeks will treat the game as a motivational tool as seriously as you choose to treat it in building and rolling it out — because they want to win.
The Whiteboard Game
Everyone was working on a Sunday night as I stared at the blank portable whiteboard in my office. A weekend of hallway conversations, bug scrubbing, and informal testing confirmed what I already knew: the product was shaky, the bugs we were discovering were alarmingly bad, and there were too many of them.
Ok, a game. The game will be called Focus and it will concentrate and structure our attention on the worst parts of the product. I listed the 10 worst bugs I’d found during the weekend on the board. Next to each bug, I drew four boxes:
- Root cause
- Fix identified
I grabbed a handful of dry erase pens and rolled the board into the architect’s office and said, “This is all we’re working on”.
He stared at the board for 10 minutes and finally nodded, “Good, but each person needs their own color and you should assign points for each of the boxes. 10 points for root cause and fix identification, 5 for fixes and tests.”
“Points for what?”
“Points for points. We’re geeks.”
“And everyone has their own color?”
“Yeah, so we know who has the most points. Give me a blue pen, I’ve already got root cause on bug #3.”
“Yeah, I’m always blue.”