Three game design lessons for strategic change

Last week, I rediscovered a video called ’20 years, 20 lessons’, in which Mark Rosewater (head designer for a game called Magic: the Gathering) shares important design lessons he learned over the past twenty years of designing the game. If you haven’t, I really recommend you watch it here.

By the way, there is more to learn from this game and playing it, for instance what I shared on the art of corporate meta gaming.

This video is worth watching for its entertainment value alone, but it gets really interesting when you translate it from game design to intervention design or strategy design for instance. That’s what this post is about…

In my line of work, I tend to get a lot of questions like ‘can you help me getting my people to buy into my strategy?’ or ‘why is my leadership team lacking ownership?’. In other words, questions that have to do with collectively feeling good about a strategic course and finding the commitment to see this course through.

Here’s the link to Magic: the Gathering. This game has existed for 25 years this year and it managed to create a huge and growing fan base of currently millions of players. In a highly competitive gaming industry, this is really special. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, it is not a video game. It is a collectible card game. Analogue, real, card board playing cards. There is a great digital and online enhancing experience, but at its core, it is just a card game.

In order to be this successful, the game has to evolve in a way that retains current players and attracts new players. To be able to do that, R&D plays a crucial role. Out of Mark’s twenty lessons, I want to highlight three of them that really help understanding the game’s strategy and can be applied to strategy design and execution for any other organization.

The lessons are:
Lesson #7: Allow the players the ability to make the game personal
Lesson #8: The details are where the players fall in love with your game
Lesson #9: Allow your players to have a sense of ownership
You can find a written version of these lessons on Wizards of the Coast’s website.

Let’s look at lesson #7 and formulate it as a generic strategic principle:
Allow your employees to make the strategy personal.
How does this work then?

  1. Make sure a strategy or strategic course has enough room for exploration in it so people can look for stuff they can relate to and make choices about. For instance, you can define a framework or a set of boundary conditions around a business model, but you can leave the way processes are designed and the work is to be divided open for debate.
  2. Make sure you have a collaborative process of exploration. By this I mean some sort of interaction with the people in your organization in which they can discuss the strategy. Have conversations that allow them to bring it in contact with their perception of what’s going on. This is exploratory: the aim is to make sure that everybody really understands the strategy, from their own perspective.
  3. After exploring, turn the conversation into applying. Open up the conversation so that people can bring their own unique insights and knowledge to the table and talk about ways to make this strategy actually work. A good strategy is not only designed by people who get to decide, it is also done by the people that know and people that do!

In the end, people are not looking at a strategy, they are talking about their strategy. It becomes personal.

Let lesson #8:
The details are where your employees fall in love with the strategy
When you have a collaborative exploration and application of the strategy as described above it is important to look at the bigger picture and to get to a very detailed level. The details are what make the difference for most people. Surely they will agree with a business model that holds the promise of more sales, revenue or margin. The details however are the things that matter because they are experienced on a daily basis and on a very personal level. What are the tools I get to work with? Who is going to be in my team? What are the key indicators for success that I will be judged against at the end of the year?

When you get to this detail level in conversations, things will get heated. Do not worry about that. Embrace the emotions that come to the surface and have a constructive fight if necessary. But in the end, people will find little things in the strategy that they feel strongly connected to. This is where they might start to fall in love with the strategy. Because they have an emotional connection somewhere with it.

Lesson #9:
Allow your people to have a sense of ownership
Ownership comes in many forms and exists at many levels. In a truly collaborative strategy design process, there will be blank spaces that can be filled and choices that are up to the employees.

There might be someone who has a great idea for a new way of doing something. A team might collectively decide on the best way to work together in order to get to the outcome they are responsible for. The key here is to leave enough room to make choices. Or in other words: leave space for people to be the professionals they are. Of course, this space should be as large as their professionalism can handle.

So in short, what we can learn from game design when designing and implementing strategy is a lot. There’s more, but for now, I just wanted to show these three lessons as they hold so much potential. Enjoy!

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *