How to use board games to increase team performance and innovation
If you are a team leader trying to take your team to the next level regarding performance and innovation, you may want to develop their creativity, collaboration, empathy, storytelling, and visual communication. Those are the basic skills needed to perform a Design Thinking process, an innovation framework with people at the core.
But there is more. If you use a playful approach, you may find more engagement, bonding, and relaxation in your team, as a side effect. This impacts in collaboration and performance, and I suspect in employee retention…
There are several ways to bring playfulness to the workplace, but I like to use board games because they are clear pieces of play and bring colorful material that I can use in many other playful ways. When people see them, they immediately make the ‘play’ connection.
In addition, I have curated a selection of boardgames that develop two or more of the Design Thinking skills, and a few of them are frequently used by Agile coaches and Scrum Masters in their team’s retrospectives.
But before I dive on the specific games, I want to share the rationale of playing at the workplace in the form of some excerpts from my upcoming book Join The Playful Revolution:
The importance of play
“Part of maintaining a thriving creative culture is giving people time and permission to play.” Tim Brown
I use the word ‘play’ loosely. I see it as something fun, that you do alone or with others, and for the joy of it.
What most academic definitions seem to have in common is that play is voluntary, pleasurable, engaging and with an irrelevant outcome (Pino, 2007). That means that you get really into it, and seek nothing more than the fun of it.
As an added bonus, play provides a context in which you can try and practice new skills, without the dangerous consequences of failing. If you fail in a play situation, just try it again, no harm done.
However, I am using play as a general term that includes playfulness, which is “a particular positive mood state that may (or may not) be manifested in observable behavior”, (Bateson and Martin, 2013). Not all play is always playful (i.e some high-stakes sports competition) and not all playful behavior involves play. Bateson and Martin coined the term “playful play”, to describe play that is also playful. In this book, play refers to playful play.
Creativity and play
By now you may be wondering what has play got to do with creativity. A quick explanation is that creating is a form of play, at the same time that play fosters creativity in many ways.
A little expanded explanation comes from Jose Ochoa, innovation expert. He wears many hats (PHD in linguistics, project manager, trainer, facilitator, author), but I interviewed him to extract from him as much gamification and creativity juice as I could.
For Jose Ochoa, a fun project is one that weaves together creativity, play, and humor. But ‘fun’ has a bad reputation in the corporate setting, so he prefers to call it ‘passion-driven’. It is what motivates you to pursue it. For him, creativity is an attitude. It requires you to be curious and make connections, and it has a nemesis called perfectionism, and immediate usefulness. Creativity takes time, a long and slow period of incubation, that will lead to speedy growth and development later on.
Play at work, the need for it all
When you are stressed out, your brain gets into fight or flight mode. In that state, you are focusing solely on survival. If you remember the incubation process of creative ideas, you need to be doing some activity that is not ‘too taxing’ to favor idea generation. Survival takes everything you’ve got so it is the opposite state. Over the years, I’ve came to the conclusion that play is the antidote of stress, and an essential precursor for creativity. That is, play fosters innovation.
But there are more reasons why we need more play, especially in the workplace.
For many years I had been a therapeutic clown in a hospital.
I went once a month, every month, for nearly ten years. After some time, I noticed that my clown character was filtering through me. I was being more playful, more jokey, showing my clown face—minus the red nose—at work. It was like it was a persona outside work that sneaks through me every now and again. I realized that the healing powers of the smile and the humor are needed not only in hospitals, but also in the office.
Charlie Hoehn, author of the book Play it Away, explains how he recovered from work-burnout through play. In his writings, Hoehn refers to Dr. Peter Grays’ research on play. Grays points at the decline of play as the cause of much of the anxiety and depression we see in young adults these days. Getting back to play may also be essential for employees well-being.
How to use board games to develop Design Thinking skills
Now that you have had a sneak peek into my book, lets go down to the nitty gritty.
Most of the games, you can use off the shelf. Just follow the games rules, and you will be set. They have been chosen to develop several skills at once and be of limited play time, ideally, at least two.
As a rule of thumb, there are games I searched for to last 15′ or less, the time of a coffee break, whilst others I looked for them to last no more thank 45′ – the lunch break average time in Spain.
Another selection criteria was to be easily adaptable to six players or more. At the very least, 4 players.
And, of course, if they provided me with visual and tactile material I could use in other group dynamics, all the better. In that route, Dixit would be my set of choice. I have use the cards to develop a communication package, design futures, brainstorming brand names and more. I will write a single article on it at some point. It is a game that fascinates me. Here is a little advance:
Now, to help you pick and choose, I have created a list with the essential details, which includes a link to an unboxing video.
Skills: empathy, visual language (also creativity, collaboration and storytelling, when used differently)
Players: 4-12 (depending on version)
Description: the essence of the game requires the game master to pick a card, state a sentence or concept that it could represent. Then the rest of players pick the card from the set they were given that best represents the concept. Next, all the selected cards, including the game master’s are placed facing down and shuffled. When they are turned over, players need to guess which one is the game master’s choice. The learning happens when trying to read the game master’s mind, the type of association that he or she would make.
Material: board, player figures, voting marks, set of 84 visual figurative images with full color
Alternative: any set of colorful conceptual images (i.e. postcards, or a diy selection of images in a free site like unsplash.com)
Rory Story Cubes
Skills: empathy, collaboration, storytelling, creativity, visual language
Players: any number, taking turns or making teams
Duration: 5′ to any
Description: there are several ways to play with the dice. From one dice to inspire a childhood memory to share with teammates, to a collective story built by using 9 dice and the beginning-middle-end basic structure. You can use them to reflect on a project or event both as, picking a random icon, and sharing the event inspired by the image, or browsing the dice to pick the icon that best represent the event/project. You can use any visual card set to do the same. The dice provide some playful and tactile experience a little different than the cards.
Material: basic set of nine dice with general visual monochrome icons. Themes can vary according to sets
Alternatives: any set of dice with icons (i.e. Tiger dice), you can even create your own
Skills: empathy, visual language
Players: 4-8 or more, but much more than 6-8 can make the game longer
Duration: 15′ for one round with 4-6 people
Description: players get five cards each, and the game master prompts a question: “How would I feel if XXX?”. Players pick from their set the card that best reflects that feeling (the game master’s not the player’s in the situation described). They are shuffled facing down and the game master chooses the one that best represents the feeling. Of course, you may get impossible cards, but that is the fun of it. The interesting thing is to hear how the game master is interpreting each image before choosing, and how the players interpret their own choices.
Material: set of 110 visual black figurative icon cards and 150 sample questions
Alternative: any set of iconic images (i.e. Eye-Sea (sp:Conecta2)) or figurative images (i.e. Dixit)
Eye-Sea (Spanish edition: Conecta2)
Skills: creativity, visual language
Players: 4-6 or more, but you need room around a shared table to reach the cards
Description: a set of nine cards are placed over the table to start. Everyone tries to find some logical association between any two. If everybody (or a game master) accepts an association, the player who proposed it keeps the cards, and two more cards are added to the table. You can be more permissive at the beginning, or add restrictions, or themes, as you go. It is a game that requires quick thinking and it is an ideal warmup for ideation, or concentration tasks.
Material: set of 100 visual figurative images fully colored
Alternatives: any set of more than 60 simple images (i.e. Ikonikus, Dixit)
The Extraordinaires Design Studio
Skills: empathy, research, creativity, visual language
Players: 1-6 or more, depending on the set, even 30
Duration: 10′ -30′ (more if there is more people or you want to be more thorough with the process
Description: If you want to introduce the essence of the Design Thinking process in a relaxed environment, without taking too much time (as little as 10′), you can use The Extraordinaires Design Studio. Quick and fun intro to Design Thinking with the funky characters of the Extraordinaires Design Studio. You empathize with a character, pick a card with a challenge and grab some direction from suggestion cards. I tested it with adults and younger children alike. There are smaller kits available.
For a more thorough primer, I recommend the Wallet Project from dSchool at Stanford, which is a 90′ workshop. All the material is available for free.
I would also recommend this kit to design thinking pros looking to spice up a project. When you need more disruptive ideas, you can use the characters during the empathize stage to go full on in playful mode. Sometimes you just need to play a little to spark the craziest of ideas, that would lead to disruptive innovation.
Material: board, player figures, voting marks, set of 84 visual figurative images