mandag 30. desember 2013

Seriously… playing games at work in the ICT sector? Part II

Read part I here

Can you play yourself to more productive IT solutions? I know the theory that will show you how this could be true, but how does it work in practice? ABC of ICT – or in full: “Attitudes, behavior and culture in Information and Communications Technology” is a card game tagged as an awareness and assessment tool, and I was very excited to meet its creator Paul Wilkinson of Gaming Works at a workshop in Trondheim at the ITSmF, the meeting grounds of the native IT people in my town.

I meet Paul Wilkinson as he is leaving lunch. We just get to exchange a couple of sentences, but instead this gives me the opportunity to meet his target audience. I’m always prepared to be surprised: it is my anthropologist’s special skill. And already during lunch I realize that I’m further out in the wilderness than I knew. I’ve been about a bit, and only after a couple of minutes I get to hear a usual phrase: “whatever has worked elsewhere, won’t work here, because we are so different.”

This is typically a stereotype bias. Because we see only part of what people elsewhere do, we are free to impose them with any qualities possible, so simple that they could be explained by the tiniest story. But when it comes to us: we know ourselves, and the people we know, so well. We know that there are exceptions, deviances, variations and traits that make us completely unsuited to stereotyping. Except the one about us being different from everybody else we know.
I think I’m on safe grounds when I tell the lunch crew that I’m interested in the use of games in organizations. And then I realize that the use of games is possibly not accepted here as I thought before I came. “You have to work hard if you are to talk about games in this trade”, someone tells me.

And in deed, I was to see Paul Wilkinson work very hard to talk about games a few minutes later. So hard I was puzzled. And maybe, can my problems in understanding his approach be explained by the ITIL self-image as “no nonsense”-people. I must admit I’d be happy to hear other explanations.

Paul started by telling us his background story. People couldn’t get enough of his book on “IT Service management from Hell.” He described worst practices instead of best practices, and he accompanied them with humorous drawings. However, after reading the book, people still are fools about those worst practices, so he has made those drawings into 57 cards of a game.

We were asked to find the three cards we thought was the absolutely worst one we had encountered in our own organization, especially thinking of the end user. Now I was in a group too, and saw that one of the members of my group got stressed out because we had too little time to dwell upon each card, and she did not know whether she had made the right choices.
Her stress, I think, was further fueled by Paul’s insistence on making statistics out of our choices, making us note down the selected cards.
After a break he took us through a traditional lecture. Paul told us about the solutions of others who had picked the same cards. Most of the solutions were about shift of perspective. As an anthropologist I do agree that this often makes all the difference. His talk reminded me of IDEO, the design firm that made the mouse and numerous other inventions. They employed an anthropologist, Jane Fulton Suri– to really understand the value a product has for customers. (Check out some pictures from her book, Thoughtless acts)
He gave that other perspective useful new terms such as consequence management, the business focused mindset, and the following definition of service: 
All of this is consistent with a processual and practice oriented way of understanding knowledge. However, the content was in stark contrast to the delivery. It seemed like he subscribed to a theory-driven perspective, where we listeners are empty containers just waiting to be filled up with new knowledge, and organizations places just waiting to implement the next solution. It is further puzzling since he in the accompanying book is talking about “Not Invented Here”-syndrome, that makes people skeptical to solutions they haven’t been a part of making themselves. But it is a fallacy to think that "Not invented here" is only about resistance. It is also about possible effect.
In my PhD material I have a brilliant example of a solution that is bunk when it is “not invented here”. The encouragement administration is a seemingly official agency meant to handle encouragement. But it is the invention of the good mood farmer and his colleagues in the life works. They deliver encouragement certification to organizations, businesses and local communities, helping their collaborators to be better at seeing others, encouraging new solutions, boldness and outstanding performance – in the small things as well as in the big. One of their tools is the encouragement cards. These are handed out to others, and they also use them to compete internally on having given out the most. There are unwritten rules on how to do it, for example that one has to really notice something that the recipient would like to get feedback on. A simple: “You are great” won’t do.
Instead, you can fill out a card stating that you have been evaluated by the "Encouragement Adminstration", describing the admiring act in a couple of sentences and then checking one of the following alternatives: 

O Absolutely qualified, I am impressed! 
O The deviances are asked corrected within 
O Hmmm, how should I put it now....

However, this “card game” is dependent on it being a voluntary effort. If you have to fill out a card like this because your boss requires you to do so a certain number of times each month, the joy of handing them out is diminished, if not totally dwindling away. It can still be useful to practice being more observant, but the aspect of empowerment when we make the decision ourselves that this is important to do, goes away.
I got this vest for my birthday to really feel the plight of being an encouragement agent. I use it only occasionally in my home office. 

I do think that the ABC of ICT card game could be a good way of coming up with “invented here” solutions. But I think that requires time to come up with them instead of listening to others’ solutions, and that in turn requires a better explanation of the aesthetic rationality that makes it work.
For example on the matter of picking cards. I don’t think it matters that one is picking the three cards that are objectively the most right for you. If this was that type of science that is to end up with the one best answer, that would have been important. But it is not. If everyone in the group picks three that they resonate with, that is a good indication that they have something to discuss and work on.
We are not looking for best practices, but improving the ever evolving practices of the organization. Everything is repeated, and with each new repetition, one has the opportunity to do things just a little bit differently. One evades the imagined linear path to reaching a (new) best practice. It is a circular thinking, identifying what is repeatedly done in a way that is suboptimal, or even the worst possible way. In this situation, every teeny tiny little improvement would do. Sometimes, simply the awareness of the problem is enough to make an effort to make it go away. In other situations, the awareness can be the start of assessing what to do.
With 57 cards there are enough of the cards to give a variety of problems. Hopefully each player can find some that hits home, and that they recognize immediately as true - for them. This is subjective knowledge, and that is a starting point for discussion, since it is no direct cause-effect relationship between the exact practices of the organization and the choice of a particular card.
Paul Wilkinson agreed with me when I pointed out that any improvement would do. However, he made a puzzling choice of recording the choices of the groups, and comparing them to the ten worst practices chosen elsewhere. Given the short amount of time available to make a choice, and the loose connection between problem and problem formulation on the card, I cannot help to think that this is making a useful heuristic (rule of thumb) seem like science, which it isn’t. Daniel Kahneman has written quite a bit about the usefulness of statistics made up on the fly, to make hunches less biased. (More about Kahneman in this blog post on female leaders)
I can see two advantages of using statistics and comparisons in this situation. The first is to find comfort in that “we are not alone”, and it allows the solutions of others be relevant as inspiration for our choices. After all, that is one of the advantages of using consultants; they know how others, whom we’d like to compare with, have made their choices.
The second advantage is that it borrows legitimacy from the realm of science to get into the organization to start working. Science about the future of organizations are at best approximations, but they may be useful to think with. As an advocate of aesthetic tools in organizations, I think connecting games to hard science may be wise because hard science is useful to make a dent in the organizational self-image, much more so than soft science. And whatever is needed to make tools work for you, I applaud with standing ovation.
However, it is a fine line to balance between strengthening the sell, and weakening the tool. The connection to hard science can make the card game weaker as a tool, because the subjective solutions, the ones that will work for you, can be hindered by trying to copy the assumed objective solutions. Then you are making the same mistake as the tool is supposed to solve, namely that the ITIL framework is implemented badly because the solutions are too technically oriented.  
I do understand the dilemma. The people he is talking to are expecting solutions. They are also people fluent in computer code, which is unambiguous if not straight forward, where everything subscribes to the linearity of natural science. With the whole of western culture being partial to natural science ideals, it is no wonder that people who understand the inner workings of computer code would like also to know the unambiguous codes of culture. Only that these are not unambiguous codes hidden under a gloss of user interface. They are consistently inconsistent, and we have no problem handling those inconsistencies in everyday life because we hardly ever have to make those inconsistencies apparent.
When we do, they often take the nature of jokes, and then we delight in the inconcistencies. Jokes are funny because they are true, and not true, at the same time. Is throwing solutions over the wall what people actually to at your workplace? Of course not. It’s a metaphor. It is stretching it a bit too far, but we can recognize elements as if they were solutions thrown over a wall. The good will of both receiver and deliverer makes sure that most of the time things work at least somehow for those things they are to do.
When we laugh at a joke, it is because we resonate with the inconsistency. We should look for laughter, because that is where one can make those very small changes, with solutions we make ourselves, and that we know how to make. But when the listeners are looking for evidence that this approach works, they have to do so before they know that it has worked. So the legitimacy is borrowed from the future, or from the possible evidence of previous successes - and the last one sells stronger, even if it has a weaker effect. 
I don’t think it is bad to learn about the solutions that other people have made. But we have to understand that they only can be an inspiration. If we want to use our full power to implement changes, we have to decide and do so ourselves, not because some consultant or leader has said so. Leadership becomes like herding cats, but then again, it has always been so.

You just scrolled to see if there were any more pictures, didn't you?
 To fully understand the scope of this, we have to learn how to know when to use our ideals of science, and when rules of thumb will do. And when the search for solutions might be hindered by even using rules of thumb. This is the discussion I think we should be having if we want to use the power of games and aesthetics more purposefully in organizations. Sadly, the words for that are not yet widely available. Or from my perspective, happily. Because that's the place where I think I will my dent in the world. 
What do you think? Could you stray from the path of scientific evidence to play games at work?

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