Being able to build great teams consistently is what takes an organisation from average to amazing. Yet how do you do it? At In The Game, we love using serious games as they make the whole process easy, meaningful and fun. I’m often asked why games work so well, so I was super excited to get together with master facilitator and podcast host Myriam Hadnes (founder of Workshops Work and Never Done Before) and talk about what serious games are, how they work, and how you can start using them to build engaged hybrid teams. Here are six key takeouts from our conversation.
1. Serious games are for lasting team development.
“Often, organisations think that growing and developing a team is just 'hey, we'll get everyone together and have a social event once a month and that will help the team perform really well'. And it doesn't.” — Viren
As Myriam pointed out, team-building has a negative connotation for team members because it’s tied to the idea of silly games. And from an organisational point of view, too, team-building often boils down to light-hearted initiatives like Friday drinks or a one-off team styles workshop.
While surface-level interventions like these can bring people together, they don’t have a lasting impact. And if they’re managed badly or don’t pay attention to diversity and inclusion, they can actually make team issues worse.
This is not what serious games are about. A serious game is still about having fun, but it’s tied to a deeper outcome, which is to get teams to understand each other better and collaborate more effectively. Serious games add a level of fun and safety to difficult conversations. When these conversations are ongoing and happen regularly, that’s when you get long-lasting improvement in team performance.
So are Friday drinks and silly games all bad? No: it’s just wrong to expect that they’ll fix team issues over the long term. There’s a time and a place to do less serious things, and light-hearted interventions can be a useful lead-in or complement to deeper development.
2. Serious games make hard conversations easier.
“Serious games make communication fun. It’s a bit like magic. Ordinary conversations that might be difficult to have are easier when we’ve got a game in front of us.” — Viren
At In The Game, our games are built to encourage team interactions and create space for hard conversations. In it's essence, we've designed board games with a set of mechanics or rules that generate action and feedback — what I call the gameplay loop. A fun gameplay loop keeps people playing and creates the right environment for deeper communication to happen. When you put difficult questions through the loop, people start opening up a lot more and sharing more than they ordinarily would.
Games aren’t only good for team members — they work well for team leaders, too. Often, when they’re running these kinds of team interventions, leaders don’t know where to start.
Or, as Myriam said, a team leader might stand up and ask a personal question that makes everyone want to hide under the table or go offline.
With a game, all of a sudden, a leader has a magical deck of good questions they can ask. The game helps get around a bad process that can actually make a difficult issue worse.
3. Good team development aligns with team rhythms and rituals.
“Building team development conversations into your routines and rhythms is important because A, it means you’re more likely to have a conversation before an issue blows up, and B, you start to build muscles and skills to have better conversations.” — Viren
Regular team development conversations create a high-performance team culture. Using games as part of your teams’ rhythms and rituals works well for a few reasons.
First, when you first start playing a serious game with your team, the conversation will usually stay on the surface. Move to play the game regularly, and the answers to questions will get better and better, leading to deeper levels of communication and change.
Second, creating a regular rhythm around playing a game promotes more team self-sufficiency. You’re essentially equipping teams with a tool so they can explore and solve their own issues without the need for external intervention. When they use that tool regularly, they can nip issues in the bud instead of leaving them to fester.
And finally, regular game-playing gives team leaders a chance to build psychological safety. Team members get more comfortable when they see that they can open up and their leader won’t have a go at them for their answers. Ideally, you can start with lighter games that focus on connection and celebration and move on to sparking deeper conversations in time, once the team feels safer.
How much time do you need to set aside? A good starting point for all team development work is around two hours a week, and your games can fit into that slot. If team success is heavily dependent on how well people work together, you might want more than two hours; if it’s not so important, you can probably get away with less.
4. A host brings extra magic to a game.
“Is the game process always facilitated, or can rhythms and rituals help a team run a game independently?” — Myriam
Games usually have a host who facilitates the experience. At the simplest level, a host could just be the team leader. One step up from that is an external facilitator. The beauty of an external facilitator is that they may go somewhere the team leader wouldn’t, and the team leader may need to be more active in the conversation.
External doesn’t have to mean external to your organisation, though. A team leader can also just pop over to someone on another team and ask them to come, spend an hour and give an independent set of eyes. Cross-functional interventions like this can bring in fresh perspectives and even help break down team silos.
A good host brings some extra magic to the table. They won’t just whiz through the game: they’ll notice interesting patterns and trends that are emerging and double-click on them to go deeper. Or they’ll see a red flag coming and steer things in a different direction. And once someone has more experience with hosting, they get better at judging the questions that are coming up and maybe tweaking them a bit. As a result, the team gets a more satisfying conversation and connects more deeply.
But in the end, you can still have a great conversation without having a dedicated host. Games at In The Game have a self-facilitating gameplay process. Without a host, a team can get 80% of the way there, and a skilled host can take it to 100. An 80% conversation is still better than a zero conversation!
5. Not everything should be a game.
“What about 1-1 conversations, coaching conversations or regular check-ins between leaders and their team? Are there times when there’s no game needed, or you can overdo the game thing?” — Myriam
There are definitely some conversations where a game just isn’t appropriate. If a team’s experiencing serious conflict, for example, a game may not be the best way to match what they’re going through. And as Myriam mentioned, maybe the issue is just one person on a team, not the team dynamics as a whole.
Other times, you might be facilitating a game, and you see a flag that tells you you need to stop playing and have a different kind of conversation. Maybe you’ve poked an issue too much, and emotions are beginning to blow up. In this and other situations, continuing the game isn’t your best option.
But sometimes, a game might be just what you need to get your teams to communicate better. Ultimately, the choice comes down to your objectives. What are you trying to achieve, and what’s going to get you there? What’s the best intervention for where a team is at the moment?
6. A game requires you to trust the process.
“The purpose of games — and rhythms and rituals — isn’t always to come up with an answer on the spot. It’s to have the conversations, and then reflect and figure out what to prioritise and action after playing.” — Viren
Too often, when they start playing serious games, team leaders will try to capture the details of what everyone’s saying in order to produce some kind of report. In fact, good hosting is more about trusting the game process and knowing that the right ideas will surface organically.
A good example is the kind of game where team members are generating a ton of ideas or highlighting a bunch of problem issues. At that moment, leaders often panic, thinking they have to implement or address all these things. A better approach is just to let the game play out. Notice not the details but the essence, and when the same ideas keep popping up.
When you have those ideas, they’re just the input to the next step. Maybe everyone needs to sleep on things before they decide what that step will be.
Ultimately, the benefit of a game is the conversation it stimulates. After that, team members often need to reflect on the gameplay experience before a decision gets taken. All our games have a reflection process built in to help team leaders understand what action will have the most positive impact on team performance.
Want to get a taste of serious games in action?
Serious games are at the heart of what we do at In The Game, which is why I really enjoyed my conversation. Still, at the end of the day, playing a game is much more fun than just talking about it!
If you’d like to see how our serious games work and what they could do for your teams, I’d love to set up a demo. Just schedule a chat to get the ball rolling. Or, if you'd like to explore the effectiveness of your current approach to team development, try our team scorecard for a quick summary of where your strengths and gaps lie.
Watch our interview to hear more of our conversation about serious games, where we talk about what makes things fun, the role of facilitators and personality tests, and how games can break down silos.