The art of corporate Metagaming

When I play Magic: the Gathering with my group of friends, we play this game by the rules that come with it: card interaction, turn sequences et cetera. The result of any game could be defined by the cards (assets) we bring into this context of rules and the way we are able to put these rules to our advantage.

However, as we are human beings playing this game, we bring a lot of other stuff into the game that is not related to or part of the game itself. For example, I could use my knowledge of the social dynamics of my playing group to my advantage. I know that I will push an emotional button of one of my fellow players by something simple as a remark on his playing style, triggering a series of effects that influences the game (preferrably to my advantage of course). In other words, by bringing in some outside information into the context of the game, I can influence the game. This phenomenon is called metagaming.

This phenomenon of metagaming obviously does not only apply to playing games. It is also in place if any group of people is working together. In any corporate context, a set of rules, cultural aspects, rituals and what not is in place, ideally to the knowledge of the people that are in that organization. When facing a challenge, the organization tries to put this set of rules to it’s best use in order to come to a solution.  In other words, they will play the game by the rules. Especially in organizations where an extensive description of the standardized working processes is in place, playing by the rules is the way to go. When something happens, a process with the desired response is triggered and will be worked through, trusting the design principle of process management of predictability.

One could argue that this is a very narrowminded way of working. And it often fails, because  people are not programmed to conciously play the metagame. They are told, educated and programmed to follow the rules of logic, of the processes, of the way we do things around here. Besides the notion that this could be narrowminded, continually doing things the way they are supposed to be done, deeply engraves a set of very limiting thinking patterns.

I therefore think that organizations can be way more effective when they learn to play the metagame. In any good ASE session, be it a one day augmented meeting or a three day full blown systemic DesignShop, we should use the Scan phase for opening up people’s minds to playing the metagame and actually play it in the Focus phase. Understanding that there is no “out there and in here” is a critical imperative in this context. The game is not contained within the limitations of its rules, but instead has a very high level of reciprocity with everything that is not within these limitations.

Any organization should learn to appreciate this, instead of fighting it with putting even more rules into place. A minimal set of rules is needed however to “hold” the game. If organizations succeed in this, they will set their people free to do what they are best at, using everything within their power to interact with other people.

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