Gamestorming, as the term suggests, is brainstorming using games –pleasurable, rule-based systems of interaction. Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo’s book: Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers is the most complete collection of ideation games used in creative and tech circles since the 1970’s. I saw both Dave and Sunni speak on gamestorming soon after their book was published and am still very excited about the effectiveness of this process due to its ability to pull participants out of a day-to-day problem-solving mode towards more innovative thinking.
Games facilitate a unique, yet easily accessible, vocabulary leading to richer communication and greater creativity. Because some games are designed to yield a specific kind of insight (decision-making, planning, design, team-building, etc.) gamestorming can be even more effective when coupled with an intentional structure or sequence. For example, the six step process of brainstorming invented by Alex Osborn, Creative Problem Solving (CPS), helps teams not only come up with great ideas but also to identify objectives, clarify problems and make plans for implementing solutions.
For each step of the CPS process, a different game or game style might be used. What we commonly think of brainstorming is really only one part of a diverging and converging journey. Too often, brainstorms start and end in the middle of the process with lots of ideas generated on sticky notes, hastily typed up in a spreadsheet and delivered to a decision maker for selection. This kind of brainstorm can leave participants (and clients) frustrated because they target the wrong problem and/or the team has no insight on the outcome of their time and effort. CPS starts at the beginning of the ideation process by looking at the objective the team wishes to achieve, the facts about the situation and the proper formation of the question. When teams take the time to insure they’re addressing the right problem, the idea generating phase can yield unexpected insights and more productive results. Finally, CPS strengthens and selects the best ideas generated and closes the loop by looking at next steps and plans for action. This final step is often neglected because the mindset of ideation and implementation are very different. Gamestorming bridges the difference in thinking styles with games for decision making and games for closing. These activities are flexible enough to meet the requirements of a day-long workshop or a brief impromptu meeting.
When we break down the mechanics of games –movement around a game space, the use of artifacts, rules, and goals — we can see how each part contributes to the productive exploration of ideas.
Gamespace and Boundaries
Gamespaces include whiteboards, tables, even virtual gameboards. More importantly, entering a meaningful play space requires that participants agree to share a common understanding of the artifacts, rules and goals. A suspension of disbelief helps participants step out of their everyday patterns — a condition critical for innovative thinking. Boundaries, just like in a game of kickball or tag are the physical and temporal limits of the activity. They provide the context for the game and reassure the player who may be unfamiliar with the task. The physical movement encouraged in gamestorming also has a positive impact on creativity. Lastly, time limits provide urgency to the process. Brainstorming can be difficult work and placing limits to the time allotted encourages ideas to flow.
Artifacts include sticky notes, index cards, sketchpads, stickers, legos, playdough, images, etc. We use artifacts, both in games and in gamestorms to document the state of play, to visualize important connections and externalize our thinking and choices. Dice, for example, can be used to introduce a randomness that forces connections between dissimilar variables. By embracing arbitrary constraints, participants can view the problem with a lens that is different than their usual problem-solving approach.
Goals and Rules
The fun and satisfaction of a game often comes from the challenge of traversing manageable rules to reach (or attempt to reach) a clear goal. Games are self-contained experiences that lead to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” –a state of heightened focus and immersion. Research has proven that flow has a direct correlation to creativity. Innovation games are a simple, repeatable and easily accessible tool to reach a flow state, helping us see opportunities, patterns and connections in new ways.
Similar to the CPS methodology of divergent and convergent steps, a gamestorm activity has three parts – an opening, exploration and a closing. An opening game helps the team get warmed up, set an agenda and do some fact finding about the challenge at hand. I have used games like Cover Story and Forced Analogy to help teams set expectations, define success and start talking about ideas that have been residing only in their minds.
Once the team is talking, laughing and energy is filling the room, it’s time to switch to an exploratory game. A great example of this is an exercise developed by Todd Zaki Warfel called 6-8-5. This is basically sketching 6-8 ideas in 5 minutes. The participant then shares their ideas with other players, gets feedback and then repeats the exercise. In this game it is perfectly acceptable, in fact encouraged, for players to “steal” ideas from their colleagues and meld those ideas into their next round of sketches. Through the rapid iteration and exchange of feedback, the best ideas are filtered to the top.
Finally, a closing game helps the team reach decisions and make plans for action. How, Now, Wow is ideal for this because it forces the team to make decisions about priorities. The final artifact of the How, Now, Wow matrix is valuable as a planning tool and a conversation starter. Often the discussion of priorities leads to revelations about preparedness, competition and risk.
Innovative companies and business leaders are moving away from the black box model of creativity and putting in place conditions for collaboration that leverage the knowledge, ideas, and perspectives of the entire organization. Gamestorming is a proven tool for creative leaders to help facilitate productive innovation sessions.