How to play games that create collective solutions to complex problems.
What did you learn?
"That we have a lot of power."
Did you use your power well?
I recently lead a series of scenario-games with university students. Each game took about 90 minutes to play and participants get to experience the first-hand the challenges, and perspectives, of people and institutions they would never normally be forced to empathise deeply with.
“I have the utmost respect for Water Managers,” said one the participants. “I didn’t realise the intersection of different institutions and agencies in having water come out of the tap.”
Representing five different interest groups in the water sector, the players negotiate outcomes over 15 years and try to 'win' the game (through promotion, profit, environmental flows, re-election, etc) butalso ensure the health of the whole system.
Achieving both outcomes is not always easy!
In the game, it is possible to poison the water, starve the environment, price people out of the system and accelerate Climate Change – and still die of thirst. It’s also possible for everyone to win… (in theory at least 😊).
It’s been a wonderful experience for me, the lecturers and the participants to experience the water system in operation – with skin-in-the-game.
Years ago I ran similar games through Swinburne University for senior leaders to experience the international governance system (e.g. National Governments, the United nations etc.). Currently, a friend and I are doing something similar for the International Aid sector in Australia (which is really struggling in the aftermath of Covid).
Gaming a scenario is one of the most powerful ways of bringing home the reality and complexity of challenges. It makes the experience visceral in a way I don't think anything else replicates - except actually doing it in 'real-life'. As my old lecturer said recently:
“Even after the passage of [ten years] … the visceral experience of watching the group work through the scenarios and the outcome that played out is so clear that I can, to this day, explain the process stage by stage. I have never forgotten the impact on me or the group …"
This approach teaches empathy, systems-thinking and negotiation skills. Most importantly it shows how much we operate in our own worldview without even noticing it.
Why am I sharing this?
Because it’s through the ability to truly transpose yourself into another’s point of view that progress can be made.
I don’t mean this in a fluffy way but concretely: what is constraining them? motivating them? scaring them? What is guiding their decisions, both from a systems and a world-view perspective?
Why the Road to Hell…
The quote at the top of this piece is from one of the students who represented Agribusiness and made a killing in one game. In that version, we ended up pretty well; with water in the dams and reasonably good collective outcomes. However, in the debrief the Agribusiness team commented that they pretty much free-loaded the whole way through.
These are people studying environmental planning. They are deeply committed to positive outcomes for society but, in the game, they allowed the pursuit of their own groups' interests to trump the collective good.
It shocked them a bit, and that was the point…
The people playing the game are young and enthusiastic. They are only weakly embedded in the systems and thinking of their chosen interest group, yet they still found themselves acing contrary to their personal values.
What does that say for those of us who are inculcated with a worldview defined by a long career, scaffolded by multigenerational training and underpinned by acute and often justifiable self-interest (i.e. feed-the-family)?
Personally, I think it says we should play more role-playing games!
The functional tool for facilitating positive collective outcomes is the team. The broader to views in the team, the broader the 'we' the team can work for.
We talk a lot now about inclusiveness and diversity on teams and this is essentially why.
For the individual committed working for a broad 'we' the key is to find ways to get people on your team want to be generous with each other.
At an institutional level, we call it loyalty.
At the national level, we call it patriotism (or in Australia, national pride)
At the individual level, we call it love!
Love doesn't mean you like someone. Love means you choose and accept them exactly the way they are and in every way they are not.
Love is the ultimate act of generosity
It is from this willingness to understand where others are coming that practical solutions can be squeezed out of complex challenges and contradictory incentive-structures massaged to include the collective good we are (almost) all committed to.
It is an act of intimacy and generosity but also a strategic necessity.
It is something we all, as human beings, resist to the eye-teeth!
The level of generosity required is commensurate with the scale of the problem you wish to address. The bigger and more wicked the problem, the broader and deeper the generosity required of you to be effective in addressing it.
This is my challenge: how generous am I willing to be? I talk a big game about transforming the public sector’s capacity to work collectively, but am I really willing to be THAT generous?
If this interests you, there may be a number of ways I can help: