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Vol. 42, No. 4

Upping the game: Smart orgs get serious about collaborative exercises

by Tim Eigo

“Our association is facing a tough decision, so we’re forming a committee.”

If your impulse is to back slowly out of the room when that sentence is uttered at your bar association, you’re not alone.

Group work, group frown

Survey data and research show that most everyone agrees a workplace team can serve critical functions, and that small groups make better decisions than individuals—even if it takes longer. And yet, more than three-quarters of employees would rather work on their own.

It gets worse: Nearly 70 percent of staffers recall being part of a dysfunctional work group. Forty percent have witnessed verbal confrontations in collaborative work—and 15 percent saw things get physical.

Hello, silo, my old friend.

So if teams are important, but they’re often disliked, what’s an association to do? How can the operation of committees—so vital to our organizations—be improved? Can these micro-bodies move from meh, to effective, to—dare we dream it—exhilarating?

Vanessa Dennison has staked her career on that very possibility. A certified business analyst professional, she offered success strategies to attendees at the 2018 NABE Midyear Meeting in Vancouver. Her sessions—a brief lightning-round and an hour-long seminar—suggested that “Collaborative Games for Group Decision Making” may be your organization’s path to satisfying results.

Strategic gamification

If you’re skeptical about the concept of collaborative games, Dennison’s props probably make you grimace. As she spoke, she arrayed before her some tools that help her advance collaborative dialogue: fake currency, a bell—and a Tickle Me Elmo doll. And her questions tickled the audience’s curiosity: How could those three items lead to better work group results? And why should associations consider exploring their strategic planning through games?

Because, Dennison said, games take us outside our comfort zones and lead us to feel a little off balance—in a good way. When people focus on the game, she continued, creative solutions to workaday problems may emerge.

In addition, Dennison said, games:

  • increase engagement;
  • minimize tensions;
  • transfer the focus of competition and politics;
  • engage quiet attendees—even introverts;
  • encourage cross-departmental communication;
  • provide tangible visualizations of complex issues; and
  • encourage positive interactions through fun.

Business success: More than games

For the unconvinced, Dennison offered the business model of Pandora. In its first decade, the streaming internet radio company had high venture capital but a small budget. Pressed for time and serving a demanding, mobile audience, it couldn’t afford to fail. So rather than assign R&D to a select group of big-brain staffers, it did the opposite. Every quarter, leaders asked all the staff to identify the most important feature that must be developed—now. The questions were simple and always the same: What is the one element that we simply cannot fail at? What are the things we would be stupid to not think about?

What followed was a competition of sorts, with single-slide presentations, brainstorming, finite budget allocations, and finally, staff voting for the winner with their faux dollars.

“In two or three hours,” Dennison said, “the company figured out their roadmap for the next quarter.”

Associations that are also pressed for time and that have limited budgets (sound familiar?) may similarly benefit, she said, if they use the game-changer of games to make decisions. And the results of those decisions may keep members coming back.

Dennison then got specific in her discussion of:

  • knowing your audience, and staying within its comfort zones;
  • choosing techniques that mitigate obstacles and work with your learning environment;
  • being careful not to individually spotlight people; and
  • being prepared with your materials, instructions, and techniques to include everyone.

Game to try a new approach

Dennison put theory into practice by urging attendees into a group solution project. The problem-solving required everyone—a challenge for some. But it was enjoyable and also remarkably fast-paced—a benefit for those who want quick results so they can return to their silo.

Finally, Dennison described the benefits of interactive projects for any organization seeking to bring together departments—and generations. Whatever their ages, she said, many members of your staff will appreciate the team approach and the opportunity to contribute.

And whatever your association type or size, Dennison said, all must continually re-examine their moving parts—budgets, committees, volunteers, programs. Collaborative games may be a new way to rethink all that. After all, when the going gets tough, the tough get … gaming.

Tim Eigo

Tim Eigo is the editor of Arizona Attorney Magazine at the State Bar of Arizona.