6 Reasons Why We Should Apply Game Design Approaches to Designing Workplaces

what is next?“Life is too short to waste on playing bad games.” Yu-kai Chou

Imagine a world of work where your colleagues work tirelessly to complete the hard work that keeps everything moving. They voluntarily stay late and even deprive themselves of sleep to ensure the work is done. Along the way, they collaborate at a moment’s notice to fend off enemies and slay the dragons that arise from unexpected locations, and they’re always working on their own skills development. When things go right, they celebrate, they gain credibility among their colleagues and they nobly take their new-found skills and powers and apply them to even bigger challenges, all the while striving to strengthen the team and the organization.

Sound like fiction to you? Rather than fictional, perhaps it’s virtual—as in gaming. Yes, video gaming.

As part of my research for my latest book project, I’m digging into the theory and application of game-centered design (“gamification”) to our world of work. The findings and the opportunities to adapt and adopt the principles that have tens of millions of people happily engaged in leveling-up by grinding (dealing with the grunt work) and overcoming obstacle after obstacle, may very well hold some of the key answers in the quest to build as Gary Hamel describes it, a modern organization designed for people.

I approached this project with some initial trepidation. Admittedly, my credibility as a gamer is light. Yes, I am old enough to have played the first version of Pong, and if you’re giving me truth serum, I confess to still owning an operating version of the original Atari console from the mid 1970’s. It’s safely stored at my lake house and pulled out on inclement days after all other entertainment activities have been exhausted. Space Invaders anyone?

As part of my research, I’m digging in to not only the theories and principles behind effective game design, but the application of the theory to management. Yes, my wife is actually giving me latitude to “play” as part of my research. (I love this job.)

A number of serious game theorists and designers have spent a great deal of time translating the theories and principles of human motivation, behavioral psychology and economics, neurobiology and other fields into their form of virtual reality in great games. One of those experts, Yu-kai Chou, writing in his fantastic book, Actionable Gamification—Beyond Points, Badges and Leaderboards, and via his blog, TedX talk and social media activities, offers up a treasure trove of thought-provoking content and guidance for game designers and management thinkers everywhere.

This is not an easy read, but it’s most definitely a voyage of discovery as Chou presents his Octalysis framework describing the 8-core human motivations and how they tie to game design. While he offers up many examples of the application of game design to a variety of activities in the corporate world, including: onboarding, training, marketing, employee and customer engagement, he mostly focuses on the core drives as they relate to creating great games. The game design theory is all his and that of the many experts he cites in this detailed and well document work. The applicability to organization design and the practice of management and all related speculation is mine—don’t blame Chou for my transgressions here.

While I cannot do justice to Chou’s extensive work in this short-form post, a few key points from his book are in order:

“In (his) view, gamification is the craft of deriving fun and engaging elements found typically in games and thoughtfully applying them to the real-world or productive activities.”

The process of gamification is: “…Human focused design—which optimizes for human motivation in a system as opposed to optimizing for pure functional efficiency within the system.”

“Now imagine a world where there is no longer a divide between what you need to do and what you want to do.”

And the cautionary:

“Despite the many case studies on gamification that demonstrate the potential and promise of its great impact in the world, there are still many more examples of poor practices, failed attempts and misconceptions.”

In what is the focal point of the book, Chou presents: “The 8 Core Drives of Gamifcation,” as the building blocks of his “Octalysis” framework. While you’ll recognize these drives from your study of human psychology and various theories of motivation and behavioral economics, his structure is designed for applying the concepts, not just understanding them.

The 8 Core Drives of Chou’s Octalysis Framework:

  1. Epic Meaning and Calling
  2. Development and Accomplishment
  3. Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback
  4. Ownership & Possession
  5. Social Influence & Relatedness
  6. Scarcity & Impatience
  7. Unpredictability & Curiosity
  8. Loss & Avoidance

For those of you inclined to go to the scientific sources behind these drives, Chou conveniently recaps a number of the major academic and research studies into motivation and decision-making and relates them to his framework in a chapter near the end of the book. He is quick to highlight that he studied and participated in game design and discovered these drives as part of observing games that succeeded with millions or tens of millions of people. Later on in his work, he studied the science behind what he observed was working with wildly successful games.

And in what to me is the critical contrast between games and real life, Chou offers: “The only problem is, unlike most games with a computer interface, life does not have clear objectives, visual cues to tell me what to do, or feedback mechanics to show me how I have advanced in it.”

He’s right. And perhaps we in management have it mostly wrong.

At Least 6 Reasons Why We Should Consider Applying Game Design Approaches to Designing Workplaces:

1. Our traditional design is mostly flawed. Beyond a handful of firms that we all read about on the “Best Places to Work List,” many of us work in environments that suffer from a variety of systemic maladies that destroy morale, motivation and any propensity towards innovation.

2. We’re stuck in a rut. Consultants and management theorists have been working on tweaking organizational models for decades now, but somehow, they still mostly take on the characteristics of the organizations that emerged in the early and middle throes of the industrial revolution.

3. The obvious has been un-obvious. The construct…the logic, the framework and the base appeal to core human drives of well designed gaming experiences have been on display for a couple of decades and tested by hundreds of millions. However, those in charge (my generation) mostly ignored the power of these models and the design principles. We failed to connect the dots to our kids spending endless hours “leveling up” and the powerful psychology at work in those games.

4. Modern game design is…modern. The video games were designed with a different objective in mind than our organizations. If you follow Gary Hamel (Management Innovation Exchange), you know that he makes a compelling case for the traditional organizational model to have been the tool to convert artisans and farmers and craftspeople effectively into machines able to do the same work over and over with as little variation and as much efficiency as possible.

5. Modern game design is based on principles that have emerged on the Internet and Web. The games of the past two decades were designed with the Internet as an integral component, unlike most of our longstanding organizational and management models still struggling to bolt on these principles.

6. The Beta testing shows it works for humans. Great games draw tens of millions of people to labor unceasingly, to collaborate, to grow and learn, and in some cases to do so at the expense of food and sleep. These games appeal deeply to the motivations that make us go.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’m early in my exploration and perhaps just partially baked (or half-baked as critics may point out) in my thinking. I frankly hate the idea of solving our problems in the workplace with the points/badges and leaderboard thinking that dominates so many light attempts at gamification. I’m much more interested in extending and embedding the models and design principles of mega-successful games into our world of work. Stay tuned, and if you have some ideas to build on this early foundation, please share. I’ll read them when I can pry myself away from my latest attempt to level-up!

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

Art of Managing—Beware Lazy Approaches to the Hard Work of Strategy

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management terms“Not miscalculation, bad strategy is the active avoidance of the hard work of crafting a good strategy.” Richard Rumelt—Good Strategy/Bad Strategy


“Our strategy is to be more profitable than our competitors.”

“Our strategy is to grow from 10,000 to 100,000 customers in the next three years.”

“Our strategy is to be the leading provider of (insert your category) to the (insert your market) by (insert your year).

“Our strategy is to grow.”

“The absence of a strategy for us is actually a strategy.”

Sadly, I’m not making these quotes up. I was present for each of these utterances from otherwise intelligent senior executives. The statements underscore the widespread misunderstanding of what strategy is coupled with little idea how to actually generate one that’s coherent and legitimate.

Fluff statements don’t define a coherent strategy.

The absence of a strategy is…well, a strategy to flail and fail.

Growth is not a strategy.

And big, lofty goals don’t define or describe a strategy. In the meeting where the customer count went from 10,000 to 100,000, it was like a bidding war to see which executive could propose the most outlandish number.

“20,000, you’re thinking too small,” crowed one executive. “It should be 50,000.”

“50,000, we’ve got to go big or go home. It’s 100,000,” suggested the Managing Director. “Are we agreed that this is our strategy,” he asked, rhetorically as the bidding war came to an end.

One senior manager courageously suggested that the customer count didn’t define a strategy. He was verbally beaten down, run over and ground up by the number-charged crowd.

Rumelt’s Kernel of a Strategy:

Rumelt’s treatment on good strategy is both simple and elegant. He suggests focusing on developing the kernel of a strategy.

The Diagnosis answers very clearly, “What’s going on here?” Getting to a clear answer to this question involves considerable work in sorting through the emotions and opinions and to focus on both internal and external realities. You’re after clear statements of the truth.

The Guiding Philosophy frames: “What are we going to do about it?” It clarifies the opportunity, amplifies the firm’s key leverage points and sets bounds the field of play. It’s this absence of a guiding philosophy that is most common and most fatal to a firm’s strategic thinking and actions. Without a clear, sound guiding philosophy, every option is on the table. The goal of strategy is to take all but the essential options for success off the table.

The Coherent Actions are those steps or initiatives (and progress measures) the firm agrees to take to bring the guiding philosophy to life. Another leading strategy thinker, George Day, describes this as: “identifying a series of integrated actions to pursue competitive advantage.” The operative word is “integrated.”

What’s not apparent (although it is implied) in his “kernel” approach is the incredible hard work—the heavy lifting of debating and deciding and selecting. It’s some of the hardest brain work you’ll ever do, and the complexity is compounded by the essential need for a group of high-powered people to move beyond ego and bias to a place that is more honest and objective. That last point, the group dynamic, is in my experience, the most difficult part of the process for a book’s worth of reasons.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In most of our firms and even in our public matters of state, we’re letting our leaders and our executive teams off the hook on the hard work of cultivating and articulating coherent strategies. Don’t settle for the platitudes and lofty goals and fluff-statements—they’re not strategies, they’re the result of a lazy approach to a critical topic. Whether you’re sitting at the top of the food chain or operating from somewhere in the middle, it’s essential to ask and push for clear, coherent answers to the hard questions.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


Leadership Caffeine™—Seeing and Observing

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeve

The Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

A dialog between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

“The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”


“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

The famous author Saul Bellow coined the phrase, “first class noticer” and the late Warren Bennis as well as Harvard’s Max Bazerman both implore(d) us to strengthen our powers of noticing.

”I’ve never seen the world before. Now I was seeing it, and it’s a beautiful, marvelous gift. Enchanting reality! –Saul Bellow

In my discussions with senior leaders, I ask a few simple but not simplistic questions:

  • What’s new that will change everything for your firm?
  • Who are the people on your team that see the future?
  • What are you doing to change the game for the better for your customers?

As you might imagine, the answers to all three of the questions are often…light.

Too many of us view our world through glasses that both narrow the vision and shrink the focal point to a point just a short distance (and time) from the here and now.

We spend an incredible amount of time immersed in a world of our own fabrication—the world as it feels and looks and acts from inside our organization’s walls. It’s not the culture that will kill you, it’s the view. It’s time to change it.

Take off the blinders and look up and out further. Extend your focal point.

Changing the View and Becoming First Class Noticers:

A marketing executive I hold in high regard did this with her team.

She had grown tired of the endless debates about what to do and where to go that were anchored firmly by the view and biases of the people in her firm.

She sent her team out into the field to attend industry events and talk with customers. They parroted what they heard: “faster horses” (more of the same…incremental changes) from the customers, and the same tired industry gossip and scuttlebutt about new features, functions and releases from competitors. She had long been convinced that the only thing that changed at the annual industry trade-shows were the company names on the badges of the same people.

She did something her team viewed initially as odd. She cut the budgets for travel to industry events and she signed people up and sent them out to events and conferences and summits in markets and for technologies far removed from her firm’s industry.

The team was confused.

She sent them out with bewildered looks on their faces, armed with two requirements:

  1. Listen and observe. Pay attention to this environment. What’s happening? What’s new? What’s driving and changing everything? How are the change leaders impacting the incumbents?
  2. Be prepared to come home and share your ideas (no matter how wild) on how what you observed might apply to our industry and customers?

While people were tentative at first, they quickly embraced the idea of listening and learning and observing in these very foreign environments. They met with industry leaders. They lingered at the booths of unfamiliar companies and asked questions. They asked a lot of questions. And then they returned home to share.

Some of their ideas connecting developments two or three degrees away from their industry sounded like science fiction. She was pleased.

They logged the ideas and made them visible in open space area. She encouraged people to return to them and refine and jump and build on the ideas…on their own or in small groups. She encouraged people who developed a belief in a vector to research and experiment. They did.

Over the two years following the start of this program, the company added two of the ideas from this adventure to their long range investment horizon. Two other ideas translated to near-term revenues based on new partnerships uncovered in these pursuits. Her team is now talking with their customers about opportunities to grow and adapt and partner in new ways with new technologies and ideas.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The team in this example extended and broadened their view of the world to their firm’s benefit. They became “first-class noticers” who translated what they observed into ideas and in some cases actions. If your firm is preoccupied in the world that exists inside the walls of your firm, it’s time to push out and open your collective eyes and look around and notice. There’s a lot going on out there. As Bellow says, “Enchanting Reality!”

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.



Just One Thing—Think Big(ger)

Just One ThingI confess to having cultivated a strong affinity for Big Thinkers in my advancing years as an executive. The flip-side of this growing affinity is my creeping impatience and dismissal of small thinkers. Given the scale and scope of the challenges in our world and in our industries and firms, small thinkers are a drag on the drive to change. And yes, life and our careers are too short to think small.

Big Thinkers see unlimited opportunities presented over a stream of endless tomorrows. They are unencumbered by the shackles of the status quo and the narrowness of their own experience.

In prior generations, the Big Thinkers would have been arctic or sea-faring explorers or inventors challenging the boundaries of dogma and human experience. In our time, they’re the ones found rethinking everything in a world where the pace of technological change enables everything to be rethought. They’re app developers solutions architects and entrepreneurs and researchers and the business professionals stomping all over the philosophy of: “But we’ve always done it this way.”

And while ideas without actions just take up empty space in the universe, the Big Thinkers I admire revel in the view to the future while promoting actions in the here and now. They are Big Thinkers and Big Doers. Consider:

  • There’s the senior product manager who watches his customers run their operations and identifies an opportunity to save tremendous amounts of time and money by adapting off-the-shelf technology in a way never envisioned by the technology’s creators.
  • There’s the sales manager who sees the market declining over the next few years and immediately begins building an all new (to the firm) approach that will open up new customer segments.
  • There’s the engineer who takes on the de-facto industry standard technology for high value applications with a radically different and dramatically less expensive approach. But it wasn’t just the technology, it was the established dogma and the ecosystem surrounding the old technology that had to change. He won the market.
  • There’s the senior manager who tires of the price and feature battles with competitors and reinvents the firm as a systems integrator. When he presented the idea to his Board, they laughed. They’re not laughing now–they’re too busy helping govern a growing firm.
  • And there’s the customer service manager who grew tired of what she describe as, “managing reduced expectations,” and built a team that rethought what it really meant to “serve customers.” She changed the fate of the firm in the process.

In each of the examples, these Big Thinkers stared down complacency, overcame the powerful gravitational pull of the status quo and convinced others to try something new and different and even frightening. They looked up from their desks, pushed their view beyond the one from the conference room window and embraced the philosophy of: “What If? and Why Not?”

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The real leadership issue of our time is to find and engage and help the Big Thinkers who are Big Doers. If you’re a dreamer and a doer, you’re in the right place at the right time. Small thinkers need not apply.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

Assessing Power and Politics in Your Organization

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsMuch of the writing about leadership leaves out two of the most critical topics: power and politics. That’s a problem, because the political environment defines the playing field and those with the power dominate the organization’s agenda. Ignoring these facts of organizational life is a formula for futility.

I’ve encountered more than a few great professionals who were uncertain over why they had plateaued in their climb up the corporate ladder. Upon closer review, they discovered that either ignoring or being ignorant of the political environment in their organizations was part of the problem.

Just to make certain you’re thinking through these issues, here’s a checklist of questions to ask and answer about your own workplace. The best way to answer these questions is to become a careful observer of “how things happen” in your workplace.

A Checklist to Help You Assess Politics and Power in Your Workplace:


1. How did the people you perceive as the most powerful get into their current roles? Seriously, what is it they did to arrive at their current lofty levels? Did it emerge from being problem solvers? Did they take and succeed with big risks? Were the rewarded for loyalty or longevity?

2. Who sets the agenda? Typically you’ll have to look below the C-level to find the individual(s) responsible for deciding what gets done and in what order. This individual parses top management goals and objectives and brings them to life. This individual is a power broker. Along with deciding what gets done, they often decide who is involved.

3. How are decisions made? Contrary to popular belief, most decisions take place somewhere below the senior management level. Study the processes of the informal decision-making culture in your firm. Who has a voice? Who has a vote? Who’s consulted? What are the criteria for moving forward on issues? Who can block issues?

4. Who’s working on the most strategic initiatives? Study the make-up and leadership of teams responsible for executing on key projects. How do people become attached to these initiatives?

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development words5. Who’s rising and who’s falling? Who’s gaining responsibility and who’s losing it? Power is typically a zero-sum game in an organization. For someone to ascend, someone else has to fall…or leave. Harsh, but most often true. Play close attention to the behaviors being rewarded and there are always lessons to be gained from those being edged or pushed out.

6. Who has the ear of top management? I particularly like the idea of observing who makes up the CEO’s “kitchen cabinet” …that informal group of advisors he/she draws upon when faced with critical issues. Surprisingly, this group often comes from the ranks below the CEO’s senior management team.

7. Who does everyone want to work for? Ambitious professionals strive to attach themselves to people they perceive can help them advance in their careers. In many organizations, there’s a senior manager who has developed a reputation as a career-maker. This individual is leading the big initiatives and the closer you are to him/her, the more likely it is that you will be selected for one of these high visibility programs.

8. How toxic is your environment? Gauging organizational toxicity is an imperfect science. I advise people to look at the strength (or absence) of the organization’s values in key decisions. Look at how people are treated. Watch top management closely to see how they behave in their roles. Does their do match their tell? This is one area in particular, where careful observation of the behaviors and approaches of those in charge and those striving to be in charge over a period of time will generate an increasingly accurate reading.

9. How powerful is your boss? In gauging your own power situation, it’s good to look at your boss and understand how she fits in the bigger picture. Is your boss involved in the big issues or part of the CEO’s “kitchen cabinet?” Is she active in both supporting and drawing upon resources and initiatives from other groups? Is she a rising star or a manager who has topped out at her current level?

10. When “It” hits the fan, who comes to the rescue? Is there a go-to person or team that is called upon for tough situations?

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Anywhere people gather, a political environment emerges with some individuals slightly more equal than others when it comes to making choices and gathering and dispensing resources. Instead of ignoring or assuming you are above the fray of these topics, work to strengthen your Political I.Q. by carefully observing how things happen in your workplace. Of course, the difficult issue is to move from observer to participant in a manner where you are engaged in a manner that doesn’t challenge you to compromise your ethics and values. That’s another topic for another day. For now, start paying attention! What you learn might just make your life in your organization a bit more rewarding.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.