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Gamestorming March 13, 2011

Posted by Tom LeSaffre in Uncategorized.

Gamestorming, by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo, was written to be a manual for enabling the creative process.  The authors assert that in today’s economy, knowledge workers are expected to generate creative, innovative results on a consistent basis, but that many managers perceive the creative process as a “black box” that cannot be easily taught or understood.  This book, a collection of games and brainstorming methodologies, sets out to demystify the creative process by serving as a set of tools and strategies for consistently generating innovative ideas.  The games themselves are not necessarily the creations of the authors, but a “soup” (as they describe it) of the brainstorming methodologies that have been used through Silicon Valley since the 1970s.

All 80+ games presented in this book are simple to understand.  I thought that several of the games had the potential to generate some interesting contributions to brainstorming exercises.  A few that stood out to me:

“Empathy Map” – for projects that cater to a specific customer or stakeholder, start off with an exercise focusing on that target.  The group takes time to brainstorm what a subject might think, see, hear, feel and say, and then keeps the identified characteristics up on the wall throughout the subsequent stages of a project.  This game helps to thoroughly consider a customer’s needs and wants before jumping ahead to what could be premature product or service decisions.

“The Anti-Problem” – asks team members who are at their wits’ end to go through a structured brainstorming process to solve the complete opposite of the problem they face.  For example, if a group can’t figure out a way to improve sales conversions, they could brainstorm ways to help customers avoid buying their products.  The idea is that by identifying weaknesses or just looking at the problem from a different perspective, an “a-ha” moment may be generated to help the group reconsider their approach to the original problem.

“Button”- while brainstorming, have the group facilitator roll a die or use some other random number generator (i.e. “hit the button”) to decide who will contribute the next idea to the board.  This keeps everybody paying attention and involved, reduces the potential for “alphas” to take over the room, breaks up single trains of thought that could influence the ideation session.

While all of these ideas are simple, some of the games proposed in the book are so simple that I would argue their inclusion is silly.  For example, “Dot Voting” requires putting dots on flip chart paper next to a preferred decision-making alternative.  It is no more complicated than taking a majority vote and it seems to be included just to fill pages.  I also disagreed with the value of some of the proposed games, particularly:

“Challenge Card” – split the room into two groups, one for a particular idea and one against it.  Each team takes a few minutes to brainstorm as many justifications as they can for their position, filling index cards with one idea a time, until time runs up.  The two teams then play cards – the challenge team will throw down one card with a problem, and the proponent team throws down one card with a solution to that problem.  Each team earns a point for throwing down a card for which the other team has no rebuttal.  In my opinion, this is an extended version of a simple pros vs. cons analysis, which many other authors (notably Tom Kelley from IDEO) insist is a poor exercise for encouraging innovative thinking.  It is too easy for the devil’s advocate to reject a new idea when the new idea has not been thoroughly researched, explored or tested.  Perhaps the competitiveness of the gaming scenario in Challenge Card may stir an impressive volume of ideas, but otherwise, I don’t think it is very useful.

People may like this book for several reasons.  The tools provided are usable in lots of different scenarios.  The games help to generate new ways of thinking outside of existing parameters and structures.  They also get people to try out new roles – active talkers can be forced into an “observe and report” role, and vice versa.  The book proposes ways to improve brainstorming results by removing a problem’s traditional constraints (or adding new ones) and by more efficiently categorizing the abstract ideas that brainstorming sessions generate.  Also, it certainly contributes to our class dialogue on design.  The book proposes three different phases of the creative process – opening (which corresponds well with the “analysis” and “definition” phases from The Universal Traveler), exploring (“ideation”) and closing (“selection” and “implementation”).  It also includes the Osterwalder business model canvas as one of its “games” on page 153.

As I read, I thought that the book would have been a lot more compelling if it had identified specific games that could be useful for more specific business problems.  For example, I chose this book because its summary reminded me of the Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley.  His book was one I enjoyed because of how it proposed a specific framework for consistently overcoming hurdles to innovation, mainly by assigning roles to team members that could help to overcome common pitfalls in the creative process.  Conversely, I felt that this book takes a shotgun approach with many ideas that could appeal to several situations, but none that specifically applies to anything in particular.



1. Jon Pittman - March 15, 2011

Tom – One thing to consider – many books about design process/methods follow a similar pattern – providing a toolkit of approaches rather than offering a more prescriptive recipe or method. I think this is because there is no one methodology that always is appropriate and always works. This is something that you might want to ask Hugh Dubberly when he comes to speak near the end of the class.

It does sound like you found a few of the techniques useful – particularly after seeing them in class.

2. Dave Gray - April 11, 2011

Hi Tom,

Thanks for this thoughtful review. I appreciate your comments.

We did consider a problem-solution approach. However, as Jon pointed out, in practice the number of problems that any one game can solve is so numerous that it’s quite difficult to create a concordance. A hammer is a very simple tool, and precisely because it is so simple, its potential uses are extremely varied. The Gamestorming tools are similar. It’s not a one-to-one mapping.

Some of the games won’t make much sense until you have run into the kind of problem that they solve. Take dot voting for example.

Imagine you have 30 people in a room and that collectively they had just come up with 3 possible strategies each. That’s 90 ideas. Now let’s say you want the group to collectively sort through those ideas and identify the top 10 out of the whole set. How would you do that with a majority vote by hand?

This is where something like dot voting comes in handy. You have them tape their ideas to the wall and then give everyone three dots and let them “bid” on their favorite strategies. Within a very short time you will be able to do a quick visual scan and see which of the ideas are garnering the most votes.

You’re right that we have taken a “shotgun” approach, in the sense that we have listed a set of innovation tools without a huge amount of prescription for their use.

It is my opinion that there is not one “right way” to innovate or design. I believe the best way to learn about design is to start designing things. If people find them useful you’re on the right track. If not then they’re crap. Designing is like swimming or riding a bike — hard to learn by reading a book.

If you have some real design problems to solve, I think you might find the Gamestorming tools useful in helping you get where you want to go. I think that if you have a real problem in mind, then sifting through the book will probably help you generate ideas about how you could proceed.

If you do have a chance to try some of the games — or maybe you already have? I look forward to hearing about your experiences.


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