Let’s enter fantasyland for a moment. What if you went home from work today and told your spouse that the best thing that happened at the office in months was a team meeting that ran all day? That you got more done in that day than in a normal month — and to top it off, it was really fun.
Contrast this vision — which probably sounds delusional — with most team meetings. As someone who has studied this up close as both an academic and as a consultant, I’ve said for years that most businesses would be better off if all meetings were disbanded. The reason is that three-quarters of tribal meetings are so nonfunctional that you’d be better off taking a nap instead.
Thanks to input from three friends, our meetings at CultureSync are like the fantasy I described. Two of the friends are from the Agile/Scrum world, Daniel Mezick and Si Alhir. The third is Robert Richman from Zappos Insights, whose excitement for what Daniel had accomplished at Zappos was so pure and joyful that it reminded me of my three-year-old daughter when she gets ice cream.
Let’s be clear on the benefits of following the guidance in this blog post. Your meetings will transform from slow marches in the snow without food or water into hyper-productive sessions in which — are you sitting down? — people love the process and can’t wait for the next session. At Robert’s suggestion, our CultureSync team invited Daniel Mezick to put us through a boot camp based on the principles of Scrum.
The result: We got more done in two days than in two months. People who normally hate meetings (I’m raising my hand here) were almost speechless with how productive and fun they were. By the end, Si’s words were ringing in my ears: “Tribal Leadership and Scrum are perfect for each other.” (Daniel and Robert had said the same thing, but I’m a slow learner.)
So how can you make your meetings like ours? You should immediately pre-order Daniel’s book,The Culture Game. (Full disclosure: I endorsed the book, and it quotes Tribal Leadership many times, but I have no financial interest in the book doing well — except that if companies actually did what Daniel recommends, they would become so productive that the stock market would double.) Until your book arrives, here are several steps you can take right away to make your meetings more fun and productive. It’s all in the details here, so please follow every step exactly.
First, start your next meeting by designating three roles. One is “Facilitator.” (In real Scrum, this role should be the “Scrum Master,” but doing so requires training outside the scope of this blog post.) The second is the “Product Owner,” the person who defines what qualifies as the “deliverable.” Scrum has very few rules, but one is that the Facilitator (Scrum Master) cannot also be the Product Owner. The third role is the team, and that’s everyone else.
Second, start your next meeting with the Facilitator helping the group establish working agreements. Do this by asking people how they respond when others bury their nose in their laptops or multitask with their smartphones. Don’t be surprised if the chief offenders here (I’m holding my hand up again) may say that they find it annoying. Then, as a temporary working agreement, ask what the group is willing to commit to. Most will say “no cell phones,” “no computers,” “no phone calls,” etc. The Facilitator should post these on the wall or whiteboard, where they are visible to everyone. Note that they will say this — it requires no confrontation on the part of the Facilitator.
Also, some people during this process may disclose that they have some reason to break the rules, and these exceptions go up on the list. In our meetings, I mentioned two people by name whose calls I would take. I then pushed my cell phone to the center of the conference table so everyone else could verify that I would take a call only from those people — and not from my bookie.
Third, set a schedule. For an extended meeting, like one going all morning, establish clear breaks. We settled on 50-minute work cycles with 10-minute breaks. During the breaks, people can email, text, use the restroom, refill their coffee cup, or anything else — including going outside for some fresh air. The blocks of work are called “iterations.” The psychological impact of knowing that a break is just a few minutes away transforms the iterations from possibly pointless meetings into goal-directed bursts of activity. People know that even a wandering, off-purpose iteration will end. You’ll find that everyone will be far more able to stay engaged and avoid the beeps and vibrations from their electronic friends.
Fourth, start each iteration with a big countdown clock, visible to everyone — and start it. As it begins to click down, ask the group to define what constitutes “done” for that iteration. Even if the group spends 15 of its 50 minutes on this question, that’s a great investment. In one of our meetings, we defined “done” as determining all of our company priorities, assigning them to a group with a lead person, and getting all of this set up on project boards. We had struggled to do exactly that for months, and we did it in a single 50-minute iteration, which included the time to define “done.” The team members may ask the Product Owner questions of clarification or scope.
Fifth, do the work to get to “done.” Anyone is free to make suggestions or point out that “15:33 is left on the clock.” Some groups will start by outlining a set of steps to get to done, and others will jump in. The Facilitator may interrupt and ask if the group knows how it will get to done, but these interruptions should be minimal. This system puts everyone in a flat meeting, without rank. I’ve implemented this simple form of Scrum in meetings when the CEO came in to check on our progress. In one case, he began to critique the meeting while also playing with his iPhone. In one of the best moments of my professional life, a subordinate pointed out that the CEO was welcome to join, but only as a team member (technically, he was “de-authorized from speaking as the CEO”). And, she added, our rules require no gadgets, so the boss had to please either put down the phone or exit the meeting. He complied and sat down, as a participating team member. He later said that the meeting was the most productive he had ever attended.
Sixth, end the iteration when the clock times out. Alternatively, take a break when the Facilitator calls an end to the session. If you have time before the clock hits zero, ask: “Did we get to done?”
Seventh, after the break, start with a five-minute “retro” on what worked and didn’t work in the last meeting. Based on this brief reflection, the Facilitator may ask if the group wants to amend the ground rules, such as “no sidebar conversations.” Then start the process again. Begin with a check in on rules and assignment of roles (these likely won’t change), and move through establishing “done,” doing the work, ending the process, and taking a break.
When I saw this simple form of Scrum work in executive settings, I watched meetings dominated by “I’m great” (and you’re not)” tones flip into fully functioning, high-performance tribes. Robert, Daniel and Si, you were right. Sorry it took me so long to catch up.
What I’m outlining here is perhaps only 1 percent of Scrum. If you want to glance at the other 99 percent, check out my personal blog, which has lots of links to Scrum resources and properly credits the people who helped start this movement. This blog also highlights what could be the most important development in executive management since Peter Drucker’s ideas.
Imagine 20 facilitators, fully trained in Scrum and Tribal Leadership deployed throughout your company. If you decided to do this, please let me know, so I can buy stock in your company and short your competitors.
School changed this year for the majority of freshman at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Driven, talented future media makers normally waited until their sophomore year to produce any major media through the program, but this year USC partnered with Ph.D. candidate Jeff Watson to produce Reality, an alternate reality game focused on media creation.
Reality, which just completed its first season, is one part trading card game, one part media creation tool, and one part web portal. Three hundred unique cards, color-coded by type and designed to fit together, were handed out to students who unraveled a series of clues leading to the game’s secret campus headquarters or tucked away for discovery as the game progressed. As students discovered other students who were playing, they made “deals” by trading or pooling cards that led to collaborative projects and then published their work to Reality’s web portal so other students could rate and review the projects. Winning projects earned interesting rewards, like meeting industry professionals, for the creators.
When USC pulled together a team to design Reality, they had one goal in mind: to give incoming freshmen the opportunity to collaborate with other students and sharpen their skills before their sophomore year. Watson was approached for the project because his dissertation is on transmedia interaction design. He put together a team with Simon Wiscombe, with Tracy Fullerton as an advisor.
Watson didn’t want students to feel like they had to join the game. Designed as an alternate reality game, Watson felt that students had to come to the game driven by their own curiosity for it to be truly successful, thus the typical ARG mysterious message that pulls players into the game world. Here’s how students describe their initiation into the game:
“When I started playing the game, I was eating dinner with a friend and she got a call from another friend of mine asking her to come to Fluor Tower,” says Ben Chance, a Film & Television Production major and one of the most active players. “My friend asked if I could come because I was sitting there. There was a pause. After a moment, I was told I could come. We were told we were going to a secret meeting. We came into the room and there were 8 people there and they all had their cards on the floor. I remember telling my friend, ‘This semester just got a whole lot more interesting.’”
“I remember getting a text from my friend Miranda Due,” recalls Allison Tate-Cortese, another Film & Television Production major. ”She had gotten an email from Reality (an email address she didn’t know). It had a cryptic message saying that if you can decode this email, it would tell you where to go for further instructions. It had a bunch of jumbled letters at the bottom. I was pretty shocked off the bat, it was out of the blue and came in a few days before class started.”
One interesting aspect of the slow uptake of the game (as intentionally hoped for) was the ability of those early adaptors to game the system.
“One of the things that helped get me into USC is that I’m a motivated person around challenges so when a challenge was presented to beat out other freshman students in the production of visual media it sounded like a lot of fun,” noted Chance. ”We formed a group of ten people early on and that was unheard of, other groups were getting together in twos and threes. One of my friends, Josh Rappaport, asked if I knew about the game and when I said yeah I’m in a group of 10 people he was shocked. He only knew about 4 or 5 other people playing the game so when he heard about a group of 10 other people playing the game that was unheard of.”
These early adopters dubbed themselves Marra and created an “exclusivity contract” to ensure all members participating in a challenge would get credited for the project. It became impossible for other players to beat this collective force and created some real heat between freshmen. The prizes for the game included things like class recognition, exclusive meetings with top professionals like Robert Zemeckis and famous Hollywood producers: one student even walked away with an internship offer based on the meeting.
Eventually, a rival group formed called the Tribe. While we didn’t talk to a Tribe player, Tate-Cortese, one of Marra’s members, described the Tribe’s rationale as “there are more students outside of Mara than within so why don’t we compete with that and use our massive amount of people to compete.” It worked. Before the Tribe’s formation, Marra won five weeks in a row. Once The Tribe started working together, they won five weeks in a row.
After this rivalry, a resolution emerged as a “forbidden deal.” “About week eight [of the rivalry] maybe, there were three Mara members working on a deal,” Chance explained. “Across the hall, all the Tribe members invited us into a meeting and we observed them and talked to them about what we wanted. One of the members threw out the idea of doing a ‘super project.’” The idea stuck. Chance got intrigued about a Romeo and Juliet style deal and they shot a cross-team deal, uniting the teams for the first time.
While gameplay of this nature is emergent, it is worth examining why the designers made the decisions to include elements like forced collaboration that led to this type of group deal making.
“Our initial design didn’t have cards at all,” noted Watson. ”It was much more like something like SF0–a collaborative production game played through a web portal, full stop.” Fullerton, Watson’s advisor on the project, pressed for more. As she explained,
From the beginning, the primary goal of the project was to get students talking, working, and forming lasting social bonds amongst the various divisions of the school . . . . The fact is that some students are more online-focused than others, and we didn’t want to make something that privileged that way of interacting. A face-to-face mechanic, that prompted casual discussion and ramped up to collaboration was what was needed.
Watson had been toying with an interlocking card game system for years, and that became the basis for the revised design. The initial deck design featured media artifact cards as well as action cards that would direct the making, but that still wasn’t flexible enough for what the team wanted. Finally, the team designed a deck carefully balanced between four types of cards: Maker, Property, Special, and People. The cards were flexible enough to provide the type of random prompt generation the design team wanted while still remaining portable enough to facilitate the face-to-face interactions necessary to the game’s success. After the team developed the game’s mechanics on a collaborative wiki and creating a set of test cards, Wiscombe helped refine the experience and translate it into a fleshed-out deck of cards.
Watson gave one example of the reasoning behind the team’s card design decisions. They wanted everyone to start with fairly different cards so they could discover, trade, and share new cards by talking to other players. ”If everyone had the same 10 cards in their starter pack, players wouldn’t be curious about what other players had in their packs . . . so we looked at the approximate size of what we expected would be our start-up player base — we designed for around 200 players — and then did the math from there.”
The team got to know their target audience extremely well, and adjusted the design accordingly. As Watson explains,
There’s a temptation in designing games for institutional interventions that says you should make your game maximally scalable such that other institutions can easily port it into their programs. In my experience, designing for scale from the start depersonalizes and flattens games. Our mandate was to make something that would intrigue, galvanize, and mobilize our players, and we felt that the best way to do this was to create a genuinely tailor-made experience, something that couldn’t happen anywhere else and that was precisely tuned to this particular player population. That was our priority.”
Despite the team’s focus on crafting a project particular to the USC School of Cinematic Arts, their game produced quite a few mechanics that could be readily transferable, including the way the cards link to a web-based collaborative production game.
Of course, design processes are never ideal. The beginning of the semester quickly approached and the team needed to playtest the system with limited time. They were able to bring in members of alocal pervasive gaming group to help test the mechanics and make sure they were headed in the right direction. In the end, the inaugural season of Reality proved to be its real playtest beyond figuring out the mechanics.
At its heart, Watson made something quite different from many ARGs. Even with a background in making traditional story-driven ARGs, he finds the mantra, “It’s all about the story” to be counter-productive. ”Design your ARG experiences so that they function procedurally — that is, create an actual game that drives participation and play among your audience such that the play itself generates the experience,” Watson argues. ”In our case, we had a lot of eager young media-makers to work with, and so we were able to leverage their creative and performative motivations in order to generate the overall experience.” This seems like a much needed perspective change, focusing on the mechanic and using the story as an impetus for gameplay. Watson allowed the players to tell their own more meaningful story about personal ambition and competition and collaboration.
It sounds like Reality will return again if student sentiment is any signal. The two students we spoke with both admitted that Reality was their favorite part of their freshman fall semester. They are sad to see it go, and are excited to be a part of the next iteration (even if it is just talking to next year’s freshman about the experience). Beyond the sheer fun, Tate-Cortese found the game to be an exceptional learning experience. “I think the game was brilliant because it created an incredible space for experimentation and growth. It was brilliant because you felt safe because you can try things that were outside of your comfort zone, but you didn’t have to worry about a grade accompanied with it.” She wants to be a director, but got to experiment in all of the different roles in a production.
“Everyone I spoke to in the upper classes wishes they had this experience,” Tate-Cortese said. “It speaks to the future of education and film production, and it just really proves that they are cutting edge and at the forefront of film production and education.” It also allowed for several students outside of SCA to participate in the production process and Chance thinks they are even better equipped to be SCA students (many of them want to transfer) than the SCA students who didn’t participate in Reality.
“Vanished” Teaches Children to Save the Future with Science
November 27, 2011 · By Alex Calhoun in News, Update
Images courtesy of the MIT Education Arcade
Scientists from the future reached out to present day scientists as part of Project Phoenix to investigate a natural disaster that wiped out the historical record as part of Vanished, an alternate reality game designed exclusively for children. The game was a collaboration between the MIT Education Arcade and the Smithsonian Institution, and sought to engage kids and teens in the role of scientific detectives and inspire scientific learning through an epic story. Prior to the game’s launch, ARGNet provided a sneak peek at the upcoming campaign. Now that the game has come to a conclusion, I followed up with Caitlin Feeley and Dana Tenneson of MIT’s Education Arcade to take a post-mortem look at the game.
The true heroes of Vanished were the players, who uncovered the mystery by making scientific progress week by week. The game was also populated by a full cast of characters; the most prominent was Lovelace, an artificial intelligence who traveled back in time to assist in the investigation. Moderators had in-game personas, like Storm and Megawatt, who played the roles of guardians and guides. The journey also involved interacting with real-world scientists from a variety of fields, and players even encountered a few villainous trolls and hackers among their own ranks before reaching the end.
Vanished began when members of Project Phoenix, who are scientists in the future, contacted players through the game site requesting their help to gather data to test their hypotheses about the disaster, called The Epoch. Players had to gather temperature data, photograph plants and animals, and figure out how to convert present day units of measurement to those used in the future. They determined that an asteroid strike caused The Epoch hundreds of years in the future. That raised questions about what the future was like and why humans didn’t stop the asteroid. As the game continued, players discovered that global warming cause society to collapse, causing mass starvation and technological regression. When the asteroid approached, humanity was unable to muster a response and went extinct. Project Phoenix wasn’t comprised of future human scientists, they were from another world. Just by discovering this, players discovered that humanity has the possibility of changing the future.
The Vanished team sought to invite players during the lead up to the game through outreach from the Smithsonian and press. Player recruitment expanded organically as players pulled in their friends to join the fun, while the home-schooling community provided its own influx of players. There was significant international participation, despite the game’s US-centric design focus. Over 6,700 player accounts registered, plus an additional 3,000 watcher/adult accounts; over a thousand players remained active through to the game’s finale. The Vanished team attributed this high level of active participation to the tight player community that formed over the game’s eight week run.
One design goal for Vanished was to “squash the pyramid” by encouraging traditionally casual players to take a more active role. Typically, participation in high engagement campaigns like alternate reality games are expected to take the shape of an inverted pyramid, with casual players forming the base, supported by the efforts of the highly engaged few at the top. To encourage active collaboration, players at received one of 99 unique codes at the beginning of Vanished, and the players had to assemble every code to advance. Assignment was random, so players actively solicited others to speak up and become involved. As the game progressed, players received achievement points for their participation, which could be spent to unlock documents. Many documents required more points than any single player could afford, and so players had to pool their points together as a team. While presenting Vanished at GDC Online in October, Scot Osterweil and Feeley cited improvements to the traditional “90-9-1″ player percentages of casual-active-enthusiast to 69-25-6 – tripling the active participants, with a large number of players serving as heavy contributors.
Players were allowed the freedom to discuss and critique the game as they chose. The forums were moderated, but moderation was limited to ensuring that content was age appropriate and that no players were posting personal information. Largely the players self-regulated; if someone trolled the forums, players told them to leave rather than ruin the experience for the group. When a player proclaimed “this isn’t real, it’s all fake,” moderator Storm replied in the forums, “please don’t tell [moderator] Megawatt, she’s been here for 14 hours, she’ll rupture a blood vessel if somebody tells her.” No one brought it up again. Only one troll was ever banned by moderators for repeat bad behavior.
Hacking stories flooded the news this year, so it was not surprising that a hacker emerged from within the player ranks. Anti-QWERTY found a way to unlock documents on the site without spending points. Instead of exploiting the weakness, he presented the issue to the forums. The players overwhelmingly asked Anti-QWERTY not to abuse the hack any further; they were having too much fun with the game. Anti-QWERTY privately revealed details of the hack to the moderators so that they could fix the site, and balance was preserved. The developers created a unique “White Hat Hacker” achievement and awarded it to the player.
Building community and showing that the players valued their experience powerfully demonstrate excellent game design, but the content focus of Vanished was teaching scientific skills and instilling life-long subject interest. This is a much more difficult objective to assess, but anecdotally it was a great success. Video conferences with scientists engaged otherwise quiet kids, and players across the spectrum demonstrated the transfer of newly learned knowledge to game puzzles. Initially, players had to be instructed to move beyond the initial step of creating a hypothesis, to figuring out a way to test each hypothesis. Once they had a direction, players jumped to execute.
Feedback from the participating Smithsonian museums was also highly positive. Kids visiting didn’t perform “badge checking,” a common behavior where players try to complete a checklist at maximum speed at the expense of immersing themselves. Vanished avoided sending players to answer specific questions, instead guiding them to gather information that might be applied to the week’s scientific subjects. The players seemed interested to learn about the subjects with a broader perspective. Players applied this broader knowledge to the puzzles they encountered online and critically thought through problems.
Feeley and Tenneson spoke particularly of a seventh grade teacher working with at-risk students, who contacted them after Vanished concluded. The teacher had to jump through hoops to get permission from his school and the parents in order to have his students participate, but claimsVanished transformed his class. The students were fascinated and engaged week after week, and many expressed a desire to be scientists as a result of their experience.
The team at MIT learned a number of lessons from Vanished that they hope to apply to future games. At the top of their list is the creation of additional characters; interaction with the game’s characters was a favorite part for many players, and strongly promoted engagement. The Lovelace AI began with a basic set of phrases, and the players actively taught her to improve her language when they realized she could learn. When Lovelace made comments that they perceived as rude, players reprimanded her extensively about “human etiquette.” When Lovelace was aggressive towards the moderators, players were protective and made it clear her behavior wouldn’t be tolerated. Characters like Lovelace require a real person to manage the character’s conversations and development, so additional characters would in turn require a larger staff.
For future iterations, the team wants to further improve “pyramid-squashing” and their community outreach. Flash games did a fine job of providing casual players with something to do, but also allowed some players to remain at the outskirts of the community. The response of the home-schooling community was also stronger than expected, and merits extra communication for future games. The team also plans on working closer with participating museums to create recurring events instead of tying events to a specific time. For those players unable to reach the museum at a specific time due to family schedules or distance, it would open up greater participation. Teachers who followed Vanished expressed a desire to be notified ahead of time about future games; with enough lead time, interested teachers will be better prepared to involve their students.
The promise of additional games from the MIT Education Arcade is more than lofty hopefulness, based on the success of Vanished. There has been a strong response from outside parties interested in their own games, including major publishing, tech, and arts institutions.
At the end of Vanished, players concluded their epic journey as heroes. They saved the world. And yet, saving Earth from a fictional future disaster was a vehicle for the game’s educational goals; players learned critical scientific skills, were inspired to pursue science on their own, and may follow new careers that will produce material discoveries and changes in the future. If an environmental disaster does occur, they may just save the world for real.
As a present to players, one of the team artists created a thank-you comic of a scene from the end of the game, featured at the beginning of this article. Though the Lovelace AI had never been visualized during the game, players uncovered an image of Lovelace hidden within the comic. Can you spot her? If you have trouble, check out the original Lovelace sketch for reference.
This weekend, along with gorging myself on thanksgiving leftovers, I participated in the open beta for Star Wars: the Old Republic (it’s a new MMORPG from Bioware set in the world of their acclaimed Knights of the Old Republic ‘verse). The weekend beta was open to anyone who wanted to sign up. It allowed bioware to stress test their systems and try and find any last minute bugs in time for the game to ship the week before Christmas. So from a tech perspective, these guys got a WHOLE bunch of really great data, and feedback for free. This feedback ranged from how good was the voice acting, were the missions engaging, to bug reports (some of the best from the chats were characters’ pants not rendering). This type of data is invaluable to companies that are all competing to dethrone WoW from the top of the MMO heap, especially when they are trying to follow up two HUGE successes (KOTOR 1 & 2), and when they are playing with a much beloved series (Star Wars, although it’s debatable how much love will be left after Lucas is finished… but I digress).
But the biggest thing they did was expose the game to a HUGE number of people that hopefully are now totally sold on the game, and will now go run and tell everyone else, and who are HUNGERING to get the game fired back up so they can keep playing. I am definitely one of these people. I have the game on my christmas list, it looks fun, and I wanted to give it a shot. THEN I actually got to play the game and I am completely changed on it. I have become what marketers like to call an evangelist for the game. I now want it BAD. And what’s more I want it now. If I had done this a month after release as a “free to play for the weekend” type deal I would have enjoyed it very much but I’m not sure if I would have been raving about it. But now I want it TODAY. It could be a factor of the ‘scarcity’ principle of sales, not entirely sure, but the fact that I can’t get it makes me want it more.
And I heard the same thing from everyone else one the chat. Granted you have to be VERY confident in your product (but to be honest if you’re not then you shouldn’t be launching it), but this tactic of having a wide range free test drive before release is great. It exposes a lot of people to the game PRIOR to launch and ideally will create a legion of evangelists, most likely people who did not ALREADY purchase the game who are now going to do so, AND encourage their friends/family to do the same thing, which will significantly boost first day sales. Also it create a LOT of great buzz on the interwebs. Look at me, I’m writing about it right now, and so are a large number of other bloggers/web zines/et cetera.
So.. in closing on this love letter to SWTOR, I have to say, well played, Bioware, well played.