Game on! An experiment to make skills sticky

I’ve just started a boisterous 4-week experiment with a client, and I could use your help.

The idea came from my dental hygienist.

She had a life-altering experience playing Game On!, the competitive health and fitness game invented by hilariously irreverent Krista Vernoff and Az Ferguson of Gray’s Anatomy. “It was hard, it was a blast, I got totally into it – and I never thought I could change all those habits, but I did,” she summed up as she finished flossing my teeth (speaking of habits that could use a little change).

I got a wild hair.

What would it look like to use a Game On! approach to  build communication skills?

I’m working with a group of 12 leaders on a year-long leadership development series, and we’re approaching our first desired program result: by the end of June (four months in), leaders can more comfortably, confidently and skillfully lead through challenging conversations.  To date, I’ve given these leaders a heap of concepts and tools, and they’ve been enthusiastic during our sessions.

Like all of us, they’re busy. They have business teams to manage, profit margins to watch and customers to serve. Making time for practice is tough – especially when “practicing” can feel, well, yucky, because you’re taking the risk to step into uncomfortable conversations.

So here’s the Game On!-inspired experiment I’m running to see if it moves the dial:

  • 4 teams of 3, including one designated as the team scorekeeper
  • 28-day competition
  • Weekly scorekeeping based on specific elements of practice, big and small (with the possibility of earning points, penalties, and bonuses)
  • Built-in peer pressure to keep playing like you mean it: each day, you can 5 points if you send encouraging communication to a teammate AND trash talk someone from a competing team (I borrowed this genius gem directly from Krista and Az’s version)
  • The prize: Winning group gets the mid-afternoon treat of their choice, baked by me within 24 hours after final scores are announced and served at our May session

How on earth do you award “points” for productive communication?

Good question. I wanted to incentivize behaviors without being unhelpfully prescriptive. Where I landed: Among other things, you can…

  • Earn points for a “crunch” conversation (tackling a big, hairy, long-time pattern of conflict)
  • Earn points for listening deeply to someone’s experience – what they’re feeling, thinking, observing, and want
  • Earn points when you notice, real-time, that you’re triggered and make a choice to respond productively (you might acknowledge aloud that you’re getting defensive, or take a deep breath and stay quiet vs. yelling)
  • Earn points for reading a blog post with tips for dealing with conflict (I’m sending them to the very excellent Crucial Skills blog)
  • Lose points for procrastinating a difficult conversation with your name on it, or complaining about someone to a third party
  • Get bonus points for achieving your own personal “conversation goal” for the week, or getting your scorecard in on time

As you might expect, in Week 1, the teams had no problem earning full points for trash-talking. Across all categories, in fact, their scores were high enough to surprise me: one group cleanly outscored the others at 1700 points, with two close in the middle and one trailing behind at 900. No one gave themselves a penalty. After I announced the first week’s results, a team member wrote everyone:

Hey guys – I am really enjoying our group and the experience we are sharing.  I have to say it was a bit heady to see many of you talking about or using some of the leadership skills as we were engaged in the company meeting. I am proud of the effort we are all putting forward to get this stuff down, and I know that the whole company will benefit from us spreading the skills through walking the walk.

So far, so good. 

As I wait for Week 2 scores – due this evening – my question for you smart, inspired souls is this: What else can I do to increase the fun, fuel competition, and keep practice meaningful for the remaining two weeks? Any ideas?

6 thoughts on “Game on! An experiment to make skills sticky

  1. Great stuff, sounds like a tremendous thing.
    I need a bit more colour on the ‘trash talk’ as that sounds very negative (but maybe its positively negative?!)
    How about asking them how to fuel it?
    Double or nothing/minus points on the areas they are least hitting?
    A day of constant praise and yes anding for triple points
    A day of having 2 really difficult conversations before lunch.
    A daily ‘wild card’ challenge

  2. Lizzie, these are brilliant ideas! I’m especially drawn to double or nothing on the areas they’re least hitting – very sneaky – and a daily wild card challenge. Hmmm… “Positively negative” – you’ve hit the nail on the head. Points for trash talk gives permission to be wickedly funny, and amps up the competition in a good-natured way. My sense is that it also reinforces playing with gusto (vs. bystanding). Here’s an example of someone trash talking using Gervase Bushe’s experience wheel, which is a tool they get points for using: “Ahh, good one, my esteemed colleague. I see that you are having fun with me. I feel displeased. I assume you know that my team is the best. I would like you to lose!”

  3. OK, this is big big fun.
    -How about offering bonus points if, by next Wednesday, they invest 10 minutes as a team reflecting on what is becoming clearer to them about the importance of this game…and sharing it with their entire cohort?
    -Another possibility is offering points for being brave enough to share with everyone which categories are super easy for each of them, and which are hard…eg. “We are racking up mega-points on these actions and struggling to earn points in _________category”
    -One last idea: offer bonus points for stopping all point-gaining-activities….and write a three sentence summary end of day capturing “what I noticed (about myself, about my relationships, about my feelings, about what the voice in my head was saying to me was….) as a result of stopping all of these behaviours is…..”

    Is this in any way helpful?!? Sending “holy cow this is cool” energy your way.


  4. Julie,

    First of all this is such a great way to keep the energy and creative actions flowing beyond the glow of the first intervention – brava for adapting the idea.

    As for ways to keep amping it up for them (adding layers of complexity as they gain a sense of mastery and continue to keep the challenge meter up). I think all the suggestions so far are good ideas for shifting the playing field slightly to allow them to discover new avenues of action.

    Adding on to what has been suggested you could have time sensitive extra-points activities (anyone who has the conversation they have been avoiding in the next four hours – and emails out what happened – gets 10 points). Another idea would be to engage them in the ramping up – set up a contest – 10 points to the team that comes up with the best new challenge for everyone (and then of course roll it our for more points).

    Karen’s suggestions are wonderful reflection-on-the-process ideas. That may actually be the biggest area to invest in as you reach the half way mark, since it could open up the new areas of inquiry for the home stretch of the game.

    Great work – so wonderful to watch.


  5. Loving this idea, and also the comments sparked above
    I had an interesting reaction to the recurring notion of other layers (e.g., extra points, other activities, added reflection), and it may just reflect my current state of mind/being: instead, how do you actually make this more streamlined? Maybe you’re already where it should be, and week-by-week user trends will be the best data on “yes/maybe/no” re: the need for streamlining. (I also recognize that everything you listed is an important dimension to consider.)
    One obvious approach would be an online “click-to-record” logging system, or better yet, an app. I’m sure that’s on your wish list. And, I wonder if you played “half-life” with the current score card, what would you create as the most essential measures and elements?
    Really curious to hear more about this!
    – Nick

    • Karen, Ian, Nick: I really appreciate the “less is more” theme across your responses. The reflection-in-action ideas appeal as ways to spur internal motivation (vs. spicing it up from outside). Stay tuned: about to post what happened in Week 2, and how I used your input.

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