Serious Games and Implementing Strategic Change

Setting the Table

Organizational change, when all is said and done, is the coordinated shift of many individual mindsets. Some present reality gives way to a desired or needed future reality. My colleague Tom Wadsworth refers to this as “making the future present”. It is well documented that change projects face high hurdles and frequently fail. Generally speaking the failure can be attributed to either an insufficient number of people adopting the future (i.e., “making it present”) or to a decay rate where adopters abandon the effort and prevent the effort from hitting the power curve[1].

In a recent conversation with my colleague Gail Severini she posed the question, “What if we could make people hungry for change?” My initial unspoken response was full of doubt. There are simply too many reasons – a good number of them brain-based – that people would fall short of being “hungry for change.” But, I continued to reflect. And as is often the case in conversations with Gail, her question got under my skin and provoked some reflection and thinking about change.

Change provokes deep responses in people, especially if the change is being imposed from without (real or perceived). The greater the threat against the certainty of the present the greater the doubt and fear people have of the future. (That does not imply that the present is satisfying, but it does satisfy the axiom that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.)

Is it possible, then, for people to become familiar enough with the future state of the organization – before the future is actually made present – that they will find it comfortable territory, if not be hungry for it? And, what means are available for generating that familiarity in a real and concrete way? One possibility is the use of experiential learning.

Experiential Learning

Experiential learning is the process of making meaning from direct experience. It lies at the opposite end of the learning spectrum from didactic learning (teacher tells, student listens). It is, simply, learning from experience.

David Kolb’s work on learning styles[2] is well known and respected. He describes four learning styles based on four elements of learning (one of which is experiential learning). The four elements are described as a sequential process (which can start at any one of the four elements):
1. Concrete Experience (feeling) followed by,
2. Reflective Observation (watching) followed by,
3. Abstract Conceptualization (thinking) followed by,
4. Active Experimentation (doing).

Another framework is the Action-Reflection-Learning cycle, developed at the University of Lund in Sweden in the late 1970s, also built around experiential learning. Action is taken, the action itself and the results are the focus of Reflection, Learning is derived from the Reflection, and is tested in the next Action. Between the Learning and the subsequent Action is a period in which goals and related strategies are taken into account. The cycle repeats itself to derive deeper and deeper Reflections and Learning.

Regardless of the model, experiential learning creates the time and space for people to leverage an experience for their own learning. Such an experience can be intentional and designed, and used as the focal point for strategic attention in the organization.

First, however, we will consider the effect of certainty on change in organizations.

Creating Certainty within Uncertainty

The lack of certainty – be that the anticipated loss of certainty in the face of change or the lack of certainty in the present – is a deep driver of anxiety in the change process.

Certainty, and its absence, can also be understood in the context of a brain-based view of change. When the brain perceives a loss or absence of certainty – meant here to mean certainty in the near term, not an immutable guarantee of future – the amygdala responds as if faced with a physical threat, and the fight or flight response is provoked. Neither flight nor fight are favorable to the process of change in organizations.

Fortunately, the brain also has the prefrontal cortex, the so-called executive function, where rational and thoughtful responses to change are processed. What determines which one prevails? Practice.

The Navy SEALs rely heavily on neuroscience in the design of their training programs. They repeatedly put candidates in situations where they have to rely on their prefrontal cortex to overcome the fear generated by the amygdala. While organizational change is not in the same league as a SEALs mission, the perception of the brain to change is.

All other things equal, successful change efforts are a balanced blend between the work of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Thoughtful intention, clear thinking, passion, and motivation are components of a planned and well executed change effort. All of this is favored by certainty.

How is this paradox – certainty during times of change which provoke uncertainty – resolved? Would it be possible to give people the chance to become familiar with the change before the change itself takes place, and in so doing increase the level of certainty, and improve the probability of a thoughtful and rational response to change?

The Future Organization as a Blank Canvass

Can people conceive of and experience the future before it arrives? How can we conceive of change as something that is both familiar and yet to emerge? Can people learn from the future as it emerges?

Consider the painter. She has completed a painting, and it hangs for all to see. This painting is the metaphor for the organization as we know it here in the present. Subsequently she sees, in her artist’s mind’s eye, a future painting, and which would be the metaphor for the future organization.

In that moment, she stands before a blank canvass. The entire painting is still in the future. The ideas and colors and shapes are in the painter’s mind’s eye, but the canvass is blank. It is only as brush is put to paint and paint put to canvass that the painting emerges, making the future present.

What is the organizational change equivalent of the blank canvass? And how can brush be put to paint and paint to canvass in a way that engages the imagination of people in the organization?

Serious Games and Organizational Change

Think of the blank canvass as a game. It is a serious game, insofar as it portrays a specific future with serious consequences. This game has been carefully designed, and engages people in exploring the knowledge, skills, thinking, and behaviors that will make the future organization possible, to make the future present.

The serious game is, above all, a means to an end, not the end itself. Its design is carefully planned, and winning the game requires strategic thinking and new mindsets. A good deal of preparation goes into defining and describing the future dynamics of the industry, the business environment in which the organization will compete, the knowledge, skills, thinking, and behaviors that will be required, and the business processes and rules that have to be in place for the organization to survive and prosper, all of which define the learning objectives of the game.

Most importantly, it is the tool for practicing. As with the Navy SEALs, the more people practice for the future, the better they will perform in the future.

The Implementation of Serious Games for Organizational Change

The role and purpose of a serious game exist in a context. The context is introduced by senior leaders as a part of beginning the organizational conversation on change. It is open and transparent, part of the larger preparation for a change effort. Its introduction might sound like this:

“We have been talking and thinking about the future in which this organization will operate and compete. It is different from the reality in which we operate and compete now. If we are to operate and compete in a different future reality, we have to be a different organization.“

“There are many things about the way we are today that fit the future. There are other things that will have to change. We will need different processes and methods for the way we do things. We will need to be different people – shifting our deep assumptions about our business and the way we think and behave, and the knowledge and the skills on which we rely to produce our goods and services.

“Over the next three months we are going to engage in playing a game. It is a serious game, for it embodies our future. It is a game that puts us into the future we have to become. We will play the game repeatedly, until we get good at it, and come to know the deep drivers that make for a successful run of the game.

“This is important. I will make time to play the game. I expect you to make time to play the game. I will blog on my experiences. I expect you to blog on yours. We will periodically come together in conversation to talk about our experiences and what we have learned. Three months from now, I expect us to have a pretty good handle on what the future expects of us, and for that future to be familiar to us.

“Thank you. Let the games begin!”

Making the Future Present

Three months hence, nothing officially has changed – no announcements about specifics, no visible consultants, no “sell the future” meetings, no training, no status meetings, no GANTT charts, no Lean initiatives. The status quo has been officially left alone.

Yet, something is changing. New knowledge, skills, thinking, and behaviors are emerging. The status quo is subtly shifting. Through repeated plays of the game, a gap is opening, a feeling of dissonance between the present and the future. People are beginning to explore and experiment. The game has facilitated people moving through the cycle of change before the change has actually taken place.

There are a number of models that describe how people move through change. I favor Scott and Jaffe’s model insofar as it describes the cycle in terms of the past and the future, and in terms of how we interpret the external world and how we think and feel internally.

Serious games invite people to explore. In a game designed to be the future organization, the only thing to explore is the future. The game shepherds people through Denial and Resistance into Exploration. As the future becomes more familiar, a sense of certainty grows.

The Change Effort Itself

Serious games are not a panacea for organizational change. They can serve a necessary lever of change but it is unlikely they are in and of themselves sufficient for the change process. Serious games are a means to an end, not the end themselves.

By the time senior leaders introduce the actual change effort – the end itself – the details are not foreign nor are there unexpected surprises. The serious game serves as a ready made template for change, where the initiatives rolled out in the organization mimic the elements of the game people have been playing for some time.

Rather than having to convince people of the need for change, leaders skip the consumerism approach (gaining “buy in”) and switch to the building block approach, leveraging what people already know about the future into the real changes that make the future present.

The dominant response becomes, “I’ve been here before” rather than being suddenly thrust upon the change cycle, experiencing the acute feeling of uncertainty, and digging into denial.

You Expect People To Play Games Rather Than Work?

A common response to the suggestion of experiential learning is to protest the idea of playing games rather than working. Productivity is a powerful (and important) metric in a lot of organizations, and it takes a direct hit from time spent playing games (and then talking about the results, and what they mean).

But all change efforts have a cost to the organization. No matter what activities people engage in, change always has cash costs (checks written paying for goods and services associated with managing change) and opportunity costs (time spent on acclimating to change rather than on direct labor). If there is an inevitable cost associated with change, direct or indirect, it seems fair to ask, what type of activities produce a favorable response to change?

Future Possibilities

This article concerned itself with the process of change, not its content, nor how that content came to be (an article for another day). It posed the possibility that serious games have a powerful role in organizational change efforts. Senior leaders collaborate with serious game designers to produce a game that embodies the future organization. The game elicits the knowledge, skills, thinking, and behaviors that will be required of people if the desired and needed future is made present.

As people play the game, the future becomes a familiar place. The organizational canvass is still blank, but the lines and colors and shapes of the future painting are emerging in people’s minds, and are positioned to become new mind-sets. When the actual change effort begins, people have a sense of certainty – familiar ground where the new rules are known, and a certain amount of knowledge, skill, thinking, and behaviors required of people are already in place (or at least the foundation has been cast).

Serious games are emerging as a powerful tool in corporate settings. Fast Company’s article on serious games[2] cited applications in healthcare, education, and the military industries, and mentioned companies such as Hilton Hotels, Cisco, and Alcoa. They are an emergent innovation in change management that leverage all of the same important attributes as simulation with the powerful added dimension of making it fun and social.

Visit Basic Business Simulations designers and developers of Serious Games for Learning.

[1] The power curve occurs when the growth curve of adoption becomes exponential and gains the power and the momentum to pass through the point where more than half of the people have made the future present. Thereafter the curve seeks out an implicit goal of the last person who will adopt, making the future fully present.
[2] Image from Clara Davies,

Related post: Thinking from the future as it emerges

Thinking from the Future as It Emerges

Setting the Table

I started using this phrase, “thinking from the future as it emerges”, in conversation with colleagues. Recently one of them said that while she had an inkling of what it might mean, she did not really know, describing herself as sitting back, waiting for the meaning to take shape for her. Her comment set me to explore what the phrase really means, why I am using it, and what I mean to communicate.

Otto Scharmer

I lifted the phrase from Otto Scharmer. In his book, “Theory U”, he refers to “leading from the future as it emerges”. I had substituted thinking for leading, and left the rest of the phrase in tact.

Scharmer’s book is about transformational change in leaders (as persons) that will enable and ready them to meet their existing challenges. In order to do that, Scharmer writes, leaders have to learn how to operate from the highest possible future rather than being stuck in the patterns of past experiences.

He describes this as operating from a deeper state, a deeper process, and being pulled into an emerging possibility and operating from that altered state rather then simply reflecting on and reacting to past experiences (which he refers to elsewhere as “downloading”).

The key element in being able to do this (here he uses the word able in its meaning of “ability or capacity to”) is to become aware of a profound blind spot in leadership and in every day lives.

The blind spot for Scharmer is the place within or around us where our attention and intention originates. It is the place from where we operate when we do something, what Bill O’Brien, the former CEO of Hanover Insurance, calls the “interior condition”. The reason it is blind, Scharmer writes, is because it is an invisible dimension of our everyday experience in social interactions. (I might paraphrase this as finding nothing interesting about normal and as a result, spending very little time reflecting on normal.)

He uses the example of an artist, offering three perspectives:

  • We can look at the painting after it has been created (the thing).
  • We can look at the painting during its creation (the process).
  • We can look at the painting before its creation (the blank canvass or source dimension).

The blank canvass or source is the future (i.e., the painting) emerging in the mind’s eye of the artist.

Extrapolating from the example, Scharmer notes that we can look at what leaders do, we can look at how leaders do what they do (processes), or we can look at the leader’s work from the blank canvass point of view.

Shifting From Painting to Thinking

We leave Scharmer here, reluctantly, for having opened his book after some time I am reminded of the mastery and majesty of his work. With the above as a working analogy, what is “thinking from the future as it emerges”?

If we replace painting with thinking, thoughts after they have been created (the thing) reside in our brains as memories and may be communicated to others. Thinking during creation (the process) is a complex neurological process. For now, I’ll describe it in limited fashion as the recombination or reordering of information stored in memory and/or learning (as in something new). These thoughts are written to the brain as memories or rewritten in the case of memories that already exist. That cycle repeats itself hundreds if not thousands of times a day.

I am most interested in the third, the blank canvass. What is thinking before its creation? What is the mind’s eye of the thinker? What is the blank canvass of our brain? What is the source we are tapping into when we are in a state of “no thinking” (when the canvass is blank). What gives us access to the blank canvass of thought, and what do we do with it once we get there? Most importantly, how do we identify our blind spot?

In seeking to understand “thinking from future as it emerges”, I am most drawn to the idea of “operating from the highest possible future” in the sense of operating from a deeper state, a deeper process. Being pulled into an emerging possibility and operating from that altered state rather then simply reflecting on and reacting to past experiences resonates with me as a seminal insight, what the Quakers might refer to as “opening way”.

Some Guiding Questions (taken from Scharmer)

1.What is thinking before its creation, the mind’s eye of the thinker, the blank canvass of the brain?

It occurred to me that there is a common term for this – zoning out. What is the neuroscience of zoning out?

A group of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the University of California Santa Barbara, led by Jonathan Smallwood and Kevin Brown, describe zoning out as the brain’s “offline mode”. Their “decoupling hypothesis” posits that the brain decides that nothing too interesting or too threatening is happening near by and cuts the connection between our inner and outer worlds[1]. They conclude that the decoupling hypothesis “suggests that the capacity for spontaneous cognitive activity depends upon minimizing disruptions from the external world”.

Could this be the blank canvass? I do not know, and I suspect a lot more research is needed to draw that conclusion. But it does open the door to a feasible way of understanding thinking before its creation and the mind’s eye of the thinker.

2. What is the source we are tapping into when we are in a state of “no thinking”?

One read of Smallwood and Brown suggests that creativity and imagination may be enhanced. When external stimuli are shut out, and the brain does not have to concern itself with safety, we are free to follow our thoughts where they go, float along, with no care for point of departure, destination, direction, or speed.

Does this lead to what we know as the “eureka moment”, the insight or creation or innovation that seemingly appears from nowhere? As above, I do not know, but it seems to be at least a plausible, working conjecture.

3. What gives us access to that source?

Smallwood and Brown (above) described the brain going into “offline mode” spontaneously. Can it planned? Can we schedule a time to go offline? Can we create the conditions in which the brain concludes it need not be present to the external world?

Well, we know zoning out happens, we know the circumstances, and we know the neurological mechanism.

In my own personal experience (n=1 for all you statisticians and scientists) powerful questions give me access to my source. Powerful questions can open way into parts of my source I had not yet unpacked. As I have written before, powerful questions are personal, ambiguous, and anxiety provoking. (Read Article on Powerful Questions) I have experienced very brief moments of zoning out in the immediate response to a powerful question.

Can those moments be extended? Can zoning out and being present to a group of colleagues thinking together be combined? It appears on the surface to be self-contradictory. I do not know, but I am struck by the possibility.

4. What is thinking from the highest possible future?

I often complain that bench marking is the guarantee of mediocrity. It dulls the mind and consigns the questions “why?” and “what if?” to the compost pile. Once a benchmark is declared, everyone in the industry aims to operate at the benchmark. Assuming they are all successful, when every company arrives to the benchmark, they are all operating at the same level, which by definition is the mean, which by definition is average.

And what of the company that was marked as the holder of the benchmark in the first place? Do you think they are still operating at that level?

I have always been far more interested in the thinking that created the breakthrough for the company that became the benchmark than in the benchmark itself. I have always wanted to know, how did they approach thinking in such manner that they were able to breakthrough established ways of doing things, and leapfrog into very different futures?

In the realm of thinking, proceeding forward from what is known strikes me a form of bench marking. When viewed from the vantage point of time, the results are actually a regression to a past point that once was a good idea. By the time the inquiry is done, the idea that was good is older yet, and its relevancy is at risk. It completely fails to point into a desired or possible future. It serves to anchor us in the past.

What is the highest possible future? That is a very personal question. The answer for one may be the “unanswer” for another. It does suggest that risk is involved. There is nothing safe about aiming for the highest point imaginable. Such effort, if successful, invites scrutiny, and possibly lots of it. It risks upsetting the status quo. The messenger might be confused with the message and find her or himself shipped off to Coventry.

One’s highest possible future requires a declaration of possibility. It requires putting a stake in the ground, aiming high, and pressing hard. If such action earns one the enmity of others, hurdles have to be overcome and prices paid to stay the course. It is a matter of settling for nothing less that one’s personal best. Every time. There is no rest.

5. What is the deeper state of emerging thought?

Daryl Conner speaks about what really matters. That is also a very personal place to go. To do so we have to take inventory. Who am I? What is my purpose? With what resolution will I make my mark upon the planet? We have to face the question, “Why bother in the first place?” as a matter of assessing its deep meaning to us. Are we marking time and following, or cutting trails into future possibilities?

This is heavy lifting. We have to do what we have to do to get there, continuously find ways to improve our tools for breaking through, and we have to help each other.

That, for me, is the deeper state.

6. What does it mean to operate from that altered state?

Jeffery Shwartz and Henry Stapp describe “attention density”, where intention and attention are so intensely applied that we hold onto questions and explore their meaning for long periods of time. It includes exercises such as asking a question, answering it, then asking it again, and repeating that cycle many times. Each cycle takes us deeper into our source and creates an altered state, where we are willing to stick with “why?” and “what if?” for extended periods of time, deferring “how?” for another day.

Future Possibilities

A number of the above questions ended with other questions. So a lot more thinking and inquiry around “thinking from the future as it emerges” is needed. I welcome other people’s thinking on this, whether their knowledge supports or refutes the thinking I have done thus far.

[1] Described in detail in Pupillometric Evidence for the Decoupling of Attention from Perceptual Input during Offline Thought by Smallwood, Brown, et al., retrieved 2011.10.09 at URL:

Powerful Questions

I came to know about powerful questions from Bill Brewer, a colleague of Peter Block. Bill had come to our institution to present a workshop on Block’s Six Conversations. He described powerful questions as having three attributes.

They are personal. This is not to say they are personally invasive, only that when the question is posed, it is unmistakably clear that the question must be considered on a personal level.

They are ambiguous. The ambiguity removes the option to download past thoughts or opinions or theories. The answer is not obvious. The question causes a stop in the normal flow of self-talk. With no obvious quick response available, something inside has to be unpacked in order to frame, or begin to frame, a response.

They are anxiety provoking. Not in the sense of putting one in harm’s way, but to the extent that the answer is not obvious one has to navigate the waters of uncertainty and ambiguity in order to begin to make meaning of the question. There is risk.

Taken together, the three attributes are, in the words of Henry Real Bird, the poet-laureate of Montana, an invitation to think, to move along in thought.

These attributes draw us into asking what experience we expect from considering the question that has been posed, what we expect to learn from the question, how much risk we are willing to take in the course of moving along in thought, and how much the experience of those around us matters.

Powerful questions can be philosophical and complex. They can also be simple in and of themselves, and derive their power from the duration of reflection we give them. Some pull us down paths already traveled but look at the landscape from a different point of view.

Powerful Questions for Individuals

My coach, Katherine Jackson, asked me, “What brought you to now?” “What do you mean by ‘now’” I asked. “Whatever you take it to mean” she replied. She was not being coy.

I realized she was not asking me to simply recount the factual details of a journey. The more I thought about the question the more it brought me to the realization that I was being asked to consider the culmination of all the thoughts and experiences I had ever had, the manner in which they had intertwined with each other, and how and why they had produced the me that was here right now.

Was the now of my life the only possible result of this train of thoughts and experiences? Could I have interpreted them differently? Worked from different deep assumptions? Responded differently? Grown into a different person?

I struggled with the meaning of “now”? Caught between the past and future, is now just a point of transition? A forward reflection of the past and a requirement for the future? Blissfully disconnected from both the past and the future?

The past is fixed but the future is whatever possibility we imagine it to be. Can a reflective journey through the past that delivered me into the now paradoxically free me from reliving the past and open way into future possibilities? Can the totality of all the neuronal activity of my brain be leveraged into new insights and understandings, be burned into my brain as new pathways, and become the hardwiring we tap into without conscious awareness?

Powerful Questions for Organizations

What can powerful question do for organizations, if anything? “What brought us to now?” Can the possibilities for creating shift in individuals be adapted for organizations?

The answers, I think, are no and yes respectively. “No” insofar as organizations have no ability think and reflect separate from the people who populate them. “Yes” insofar as the ability and willingness of persons to each engage in the heavy lifting of inner work and choose to place the fruits of that labor in the community’s awareness. There is, I think, a prerequisite for using powerful questions in organizations.

Making Time to Think

Nancy Kline’s marvelous book, “Time to Think” makes the observation that the common complaint that people ought to do better thinking is rarely met with the intentional practice of making time and place for thinking, actively encouraging people to think, and placing a high value on thinking. In all to many organizations thinking is something one is expected to do in copious amounts so long as it does not interrupt work. Thinking at the expense of productivity is frowned upon in lean continuous improvement circles.

Communities of Learning, Thinking, and Practice

Some years ago I sent an invitation to all the managers and leaders who had attended a week-long course on leadership that I taught. It was a real invitation. I described taking the time to think by considering a question. I let people know that there was a price for attending;  people would have to give up problem solving and negotiating self interest; they may find themselves feeling vulnerable; they should be willing to take some risks (even as the risks were unnamed). I told them I would honor their option to say no and pass. Finally, I let them know I really hoped they would attend.

Of the 120 invitations I sent, close to 90 people responded, 75 said they wanted to attend, 45 said they would attend. Thirty-five people showed up on a Friday afternoon at 4 PM.

I asked one question: “What question inspires engagement in you?” I emphasized that the answer to the question was itself a question. They were not to iterate what inspired engagement but to identify the question that inspired engagement.

We began with personal reflection. Five minutes of silence. People then broke into small groups of three (very difficult to hide in a group of three). They could leave the room, wander the halls, remain at their table, anything of their choosing. They were to share their thoughts in the manner that worked for their group of three.

We reconvened about 25 minutes later. I posed a four part question: “What struck you about the question I asked, what struck you about your experience thinking about the question, what struck you about your small group conversation, and what struck you about the question that, for you, inspires you?”


I was not really interested in the actual questions that inspired them. They would be personal, and to place an expectation in the room that they had to give voice to them was not the work I had hoped the original question would provoke.

I finished (about 45 minutes late, almost everyone still there) with an invitation to offer a closing thought. It was an invitation, telling each person s/he could say no and pass. In one way or another, to greater or lesser degrees, people said they felt different. The afternoon had been hard work, and many said they had to unpack some inner parts of themselves to see the original question through to the end.

A decently large group of people returned to work on Monday with a different view of their own leadership. They now had a group of colleagues with whom they could share their thinking. They understood the people who looked to them for leadership differently. They were, by their own accounts, different people, willing and able to have different conversations in the workplace, willing to ask a few questions of their own, curious to explore leadership while they did their jobs of moving the business of the business forward.

Powerful Questions

I am not known for having original thoughts or ideas. I tell people I fully expect to die without ever having one. So, I do not feel the burden to compose powerful questions myself. I keep a journal, and write down any I hear. Then I plagiarize them to no end to adapt them to the circumstances in which I find myself.

If you know of any powerful questions, or have a gift for thinking of powerful questions, leave a comment and share.