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