16 - Luke Hohmann on the Collaboration Superpowers podcast

LUKE HOHMANN is founder and CEO of Conteneo, Inc. Conteneo improves group performance through scalable decision-making framework.



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His tips for working remotely:

  • Explain the why behind the task. Give context. Why does a task need to be done?
  • Look at problems from multiple angles.
  • Don’t frame things as a yes or a no. Always evaluate at least three options and look at the drawbacks of each option.

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Original transcript

Lisette: Great. And we’re live. Welcome, everybody, to this Hangout on Air. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people and companies who are doing great things remotely. And today I’m speaking with Luke Hohmann who is the CEO of Conteneo, and they design collaborative games for making important decisions, and that’s a really brief way of putting it. Luke, I’m going to let you describe it better because I know you can do it better than I can. Welcome and thanks for talking with me. I’m very curious about what you’ve done because as I read on your website it sounds weird at first: playing games to do work. And yes, it does sound weird, but it seems to be working.

Luke: Thank you so much and thank you, everyone, for tuning in and joining us. I think you actually did a good job describing what we do. We look at classes of problems that are collaborative in nature, and we design what are called serious games or games whose outcome is designed to solve a business problem to help groups collaboratively solve those problems. Those problems typically are associated with one of two dimensions: they’re either technical, like how do I prioritize my project portfolio or how do I build up my roadmap, or they’re wicked in the sense that I’ve got multiple actors. The economics are uncertain. The domain is uncertain and they’re values driven. So how do I attack a wicked problem in a causal system? So we have a collection of games that are associated with building alignment, helping people engage in strategy, helping people engage in prioritization, helping people make sense of wicked problems, building a foundation for action etc. We express those games in small groups because humans do not collaborate in large groups. So if you have 800 employees in six locations around the world that are working together and you need to do, say, a distributed team retrospective, we would keep the natural Scrum teams in their structure. We would do speed boat online, and then we would use data mining and data analytics to stitch up the results and create a composite of what the organization might need. So you cannot break human biology in terms of group size. A thousand people are not a collaboration model; it’s a broadcast model. The other thing that we do that is in our structure is what we call multidimensional collaboration, which is what’s the problem that you’re trying to solve? Who do you want to engage? Do you want your employees? Do you want your suppliers? Do you want your customers? Do you want people in your market? How do you want them engaged? Do you want them done in person? Do you want them done online? Do you want them done both? And then how do you sequence this workflow over time to accomplish your business objective? So if I’m, for example, working on a notion of innovation, I might engage in diversion thinking to get ideas, sense making to figure out what is appropriate, and prioritization to make my choices about which ones to execute or enact. If I’m working on process improvement, again, I might go through some notion of discovery or diversion thinking like what are our problems as a team. What do we think our problems are? And I might then engage in sense making. What are the problems that I think my team can solve versus what are the problems the organization needs to attack? And then I can choose – of the problems that I think my team should solve, which ones are going to have the biggest impact? Let’s go after those. So these notions of workflows and sequencing things over time are very important. What we see as the great hole in the collaboration space is organizations mistake communication for collaboration. And so I think it’s deliciously ironic that the communication vendors via WebEx, Citrix, Google, they’re all like we’re collaborating. Well, no, no, we’re communicating [laughs]. Collaboration is a little more sophisticated than just having a shared teleconference. So what’s really interesting is the communication vendors will frame their wares. They’ll say use our unified communication platform for collaboration. But then they punt on what collaboration is and what it means and how to do it [laughs].

Lisette: Very interesting. So what does then collaboration mean? Let’s dive into that because that’s a really good question. I mean we all say it’s the biggest buzzword, but I think maybe people have different definitions.

Luke: They do. I’ll borrow or steal Wikipedia’s definition. So collaboration is typically a recursive process where people or multiple actors – it is people at some level, but it can be representing companies – so multiple actors are in working towards a common goal. So collaboration has some elements if you think about it according to this definition, and it’s a fairly well-accepted definition. So there’s a goal. There’s a specific reason that we’re collaborating. You might say, well, that’s the same for communication. You and I have a goal of having a conversation and learning about each other. But the goal of learning is not the same as the goal of solving the business problem. And there is a genre of games in the community that are educational games which are very powerful and very compelling. But when we work with people, one of the things that we point out is we’re not trying to teach you to prioritize a portfolio; we’re trying to prioritize the portfolio. If education happens as a by-product, that’s great. So it depends on the specific goals. Is my goal education or is my goal prioritization where education is a secondary effect?

The second part of that definition is because we’ve got multiple actors to operate effectively, we need to know how they should interact. How should we interact?

Lisette: How do you start?

Luke: How do we start? In a sense, what turns do we take? What are accepted ways to interact? When do I pause in a conversation? When do I lead? So there’s interaction. The other element of this is that every organization that we work with, even the most wildly successful organizations from financial perspectives… And Conteneo is blessed to work with many of the world’s largest and most successful companies: Cisco, Adobe, Avaya, Yahoo, Daimler Financial Services, Elsevier, Transamerica. All these huge companies have billions and billions of dollars in cash, and yet they all operate in fiscally prudent and responsible ways. They’re not just out spending money willy-nilly. And so there’s a notion of constraint. And so when you look at the model of collaboration, and then you take a step back and you look at what a game is. From a game theorist’s standpoint, a game has four elements: there’s a goal to achieve, there are rules that define how you interact with achieving said goal, there are constraints associated with achieving the said goal, and then there’s a trick in the game community that we would love to see in business and we do see predominantly in the Agile community that is voluntary participation. I choose to try and make a word out of seven letters to maximize my points. The constraints are the number of words that I can make. The constraint is it has to be a word in the Scrabble dictionary, and the constraint is that I’ve only given seven words. And notice in that whole definition there’s no concept of fun. There’s no concept of making something enjoyable. And that’s because the degree of enjoyment that you derive from a given activity is a constructed relationship based on who you are as a person and how you like to derive pleasure. So some people think scrabble is fun, some people can’t stand it. Some people think The Settlers of Catan is fun, some people can’t stand it. And some people think that conflict-oriented games are fun, like Risk. Some people don’t find conflict-oriented games fun. They find games like Clue or Dixit or Pandemic fun. So what we do is we’ve taken a stake in the ground. We believe deeply as a company that empowered collaborative teams are the best chance that we have to solve the business and social problems we’re facing. How we support that, I believe, is through a collection of non-conflict collaborative games that enable teams to solve those problems through collaborative play. It’s interesting that part of this call is talking about the notion of distribution in online work. People who are familiar with my own personal journey, they know that I helped form the first Agile conference in 2003 where I presented for the first time innovation games, and these were in-person techniques. And then I wrote my book and published my book. And my book talks about in-person expressions. And it was in 2008 where SAP said you’ve got to get this stuff online. And then we started our own journey of putting things online. And then in 2010, we released our software, what we would call, in loving terms now, our minimum viable product. That came out in 2010 which is when we formed Conteneo. And we’ve been growing ever since. And it’s lovely to see the growth of the online platform. But what makes our offerings completely unique is that we’re the only collaboration vendor that celebrates both in-person and online. So if you’re with a Scrum team and you’re all in the same room, you could do Prune the Product Tree together to talk about evolution and growth. Or if one of your team members is offline, you could do Prune the Product Tree online or both. That capability through standard web technology as opposed to multiple thousands of dollars of high-end whiteboards that print but the printer never works, and the whiteboard doesn’t have the special marker and all this tech breaks. By using just straightforward HTML5 technologies, we’re able to create this really amazing solution.

Lisette: And I’m curious about the difference between the collaboration that you’re seeing online and offline. Does it make a difference? Are the people that are in-person that much more collaborative or…

Luke: Oh no, no, no. It’s not that they’re more collaborative. We always say that in-person and online are like men and women; they’re equal but different. They are. We’re equal but we’re really different.

Lisette: Totally agree.

Luke: We have different piece parts and all that kind of stuff. But from all important elements, we’re absolutely equal. And I’ve written two blog posts about this, how we collaborate differently in-person and online. There are some differences. So, for example, one area where collaboration differs is when people are in person and they’re playing a visual collaboration game, which is a game that uses visual metaphors or strategic pictures to engage in sense-making or behavior. So the metaphor of growth in a tree for a product or service is captured in the game Prune the Product Tree. If I were to play that in person, you tend to see a group talk about what they want to do, and then put an apple on the tree – where the apple represents the growth. Online, you tend to see people put apples on the tree and then talk about it.

Lisette: Interesting.

Luke: Right. And that’s because of parallelism. When we’re together, you’re dealing with the science of proxemics and kinesics and speech app theory which determine physical placement of people one to another and to the artifacts that they’re working on. So how do I stand relative to the whiteboard? Who’s close to the whiteboard? Human biology has a whole set of influences about literally how far arms are, means that unless you’re standing in arm’s-length distance of the board, you can’t put the apple on the tree, so we tend to talk, we tend to agree, and we tend to put things on the board. Similarly, when we’re online, we’re all the same distance from the board, from the game. So we tend to swarm and then we tend to sense make. So when we when we teach our advanced facilitation courses, we actually will teach and give people the same experience both in-person and online, and we’ll start to tease out, look it. When you’re facilitating a game in person, this is the kind of thing that will happen. And when you’re going online, this is the kind of thing that will happen. You’re giving me a lot of body language cues about nods and things like that, which is great. When our systems are online, especially for prioritization, we actually don’t use video. And the reason we don’t use video is because video tends to serialize the communication within a team. One person speaks, everyone listens, and then we’re slowed down again. Well, more importantly, for people who speak English…let me reframe that because it’s very American. For people who are members of a group in a collaborative situation who are not speaking the dominant language of the group, meaning everyone is speaking Japanese and I’m the one person who has bad Japanese, or everyone speaking German and I’m the American who barely knows German, I’m at a collaborative disadvantage. But when I go into the chat, because we are typically in multiple language environments…or people who have a second language effect, they are able to chat more effectively than speak because they can process it a little differently. We use chats. And what also happens is that tends to reduce negative body language. You’re giving me a lot of positive body language. You’re smiling. Your eyes are wide open. You’re giving me nods. You’re using hand gestures that are reflective of someone who’s open and inviting.

Lisette: I’m becoming self-conscious [laughs].

Luke: I’m a trained psychologist. I pick these things up. But when you’re online and you’re dealing in business on a tough prioritization problem, you may not have the same feelings of openness. And by eliminating the body language, we actually have been able to show with some of our research partners like Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany that we can get better outcomes and we can increase engagement by letting people focus on the issue as opposed to focus on the expression of someone banging their fist on a table, “You’ve got to buy my project. We’ve got to do this.” Wow! Really? Why have we got to do this? Give me a reason. We also look at linguistic construction. There’s a powerful word in the languages around the world which is “because.” Really, why should we implement this marketing project? Really, why should we implement this feature? Which is one of the virtues of this story format in Agile. We give a ‘because’. I want to do this because or in order to accomplish some goal. The psychological power of because is very important and we’ll capture that. The other element that we find is that obviously, going online does give you scale, and scale gives you data, and data gives you greater degrees of confidence. So I often tell people that product management is either the easiest or hardest job you want. It’s the easiest job you can have if you take the time to truly engage and understand market needs and customer needs, and it’s the hardest job in the world when you’re out there guessing. And the fear of getting it wrong and the fear of lack of clarity is literally what drives all the market research in sites industry. And what we do is when our games are played with customers or people who aren’t customers who might be, we reduce the fear of making these wrong decisions by creating incredible confidence among the people who use our games like luck. And when I work with the Agile teams, I listen to the product managers and the product owners, and I listen for what I call hollow language. And hollow language always roots into ‘I think’. I think we should do this. Why? Because I’m the product owner and in Scrum, I get to prioritize the backlog. Shut up!

Lisette: Have you really heard that?

Luke: Oh God! Yeah. In fact, what I find deliciously ironic is Scrum is the method that prides itself on a lack of “command and control”, which I applaud – and yet it’s the method that centralizes power of backlog in one person, the product owner, which you could argue is the ultimate form of command and control. How do I control my dev team? Well, if I’m a frustrated developer, I get promoted to be a product owner, nigh on the backlog. So I think if we’re going to improve as an industry, we have to allow ourselves to be reflective and critical at times. Now on the flip side, the best product owners and the best product managers don’t use hollow language. They don’t say I think this. They say things like I have played 17 buy a feature games with 130 customers, and of those 17 games, this feature was purchased 14 times for these reasons that we’ve pulled out of the chat log. This is what we should do.

Lisette: Right. That’s data.

Luke: It’s data. And it’s also inspirational because the developers know. One of the things I point out to product owners is your developers will pull an all-nighter. I mean every developer I’ve ever met, myself included when I was a developer, every one of us has a story about working all night long on a project. So that’s not the problem. The problem is not motivation. There’s plenty of motivational power in the development world. Developers regularly move mountains. The issue is was the all-nighter worth it. Did I work all night long and achieve the business objective and it made sense? Or did I work all night long only to see my product be released and no one use it and fizzle. That’s important.

Lisette: Yeah, I would say that’s the core of motivation that we see all over the place. People want to own the solution and be proud of the work that they do and have competent teammates. That seems to be really at the heart of what everybody is looking for in the work that they do. And what I’m curious is how do people know that they need you? What kind of issues are they facing when they come to you? I ask this because I don’t know of anybody that just says I don’t know how to collaborate. Yet when I think about it, I think I don’t know how to collaborate. I mean inherently, intuitively, I know that when I get together with people, I can start a project. But why do people come to you? How do they know that they have an issue with their collaboration?

Luke: Yeah. In our marketing, we don’t really talk about the notion of collaboration as the problem. We always want to talk about the business outcome. What are you really trying to accomplish? Let’s look at our new platform strategy engine. Strategy engine is a platform designed to help organizations tackle wicked problems of strategy. So let’s take a step back. What motivated us to build strategy engine? There were two motivational draws here. The first is strategy engine was built in partnership, in collaboration with an organization called the Kettering Foundation here in the United States. The Kettering Foundation has for 30 years been running in-person forums that tackle wicked social problems, things ranging from how do we educate our children to immigration reform in the United States to tax reform and healthcare reform and bullying and net neutrality. What the Kettering Foundation has created is a process for understanding wicked problems where they call it apple, banana, potato framing of an issue – meaning you take an issue and you look at it from one perspective, and you look at it from a similar but opposite perspective, and then you create a third perspective that’s different than the other two. And it’s by looking at things in multiple perspectives, understanding that the actions associated with each perspective require, and the drawbacks in the causal system of each of those perspectives, we can analyze and create a better outcome. Now hold that line of thought and now let’s go into the decision-making science world. So researchers like Paul Nutt out of Ohio State University have studied the effectiveness of executive decision-making over two-year time horizons because these are big decisions. And when I say a wicked problem, I don’t mean do I do this epic or do I not do this epic in a backlog of an Agile team. That’s small. I know it’s not small to the Agile team because it might be $200,000 or $300,000 or €300,000 for an epic. I’m talking do I do the product at all or do I go into a market at all or do I do an acquisition. So say these are challenges at the executive level of €20 million or more. Now if you’re facing challenges at that level, you’ve got multiple actors – the economic future is uncertain, there’s lots of causal relationship. And oh, by the way, the research says that 50 percent of the time, you’re going to fail. 50 percent of executive decisions in business fail.

Lisette: Yeah, that’s crazy, huh?

Luke: Yeah, I mean that seems insane that we would allow that. And there are three dominant reasons why executive decisions fail, according to the research in decision-making science. Number one: we don’t look at options. We frame things as yes or no, and then we force ourselves into a yes or a no, and that’s not an option. A yes or no is not an option. You have to have at least three. The second thing is we fail to examine the causal impact of the system. If I’m willing to take this action, what are the drawbacks? Do I support that action and do I accept those drawbacks? And I’ll get back to a concrete example. And the third is because we don’t have decision-making science tools that match our current organizational structures, we don’t involve the right people. Let’s say – and I’ll bring it down into software – that you’re working on an enterprise software project that is in a regulated environment like banking or tax regulation or air travel. And this is a big enough project, so let’s say that you’ve got maybe eight Scrum teams – not crazy big, something sizable. And let’s say those eight Scrum teams are in one location. We’ll make it fairly easy. It’s in one co-located office. But the affected people in the company, our product management is with the Scrum teams. But then there are the regional offices or the country managers in the other parts of the world that are affected by this software release and they need this software because they want to go to market. And you’re looking at your burn-up chart because you’re a good Agile team and you’re doing a form of Agile that I call Enterprise Agile where you’re looking at velocity and you’ve got your burn-up charts and blah, blah, blah. And you’re not going to hit your target. Well, what do you do? There are three options that we’ve developed over a time as a software community. One option is we add programmers to the project. Students of history will say, oh well, that’s covered in Brooks’ Mythical Man-Month and adding programmers…Brooks’ Law, adding programmers to a late project makes it later. We can’t add programmers. Well actually, that’s not true. And even Brooks softened his point of view on that based on some of the research by Abdel-Hamid and Stuart Madnick about how you could add programmers to a project without having such challenges. So one option is adding programmers and resources. A second option what the Agile community typically does is cut features, and I’m not opposed to that. I think dates matter and in general, a product manager will say if I’m doing Agile, I’m getting stable and releasable software. True business agility is the ability to release when I want. But sometimes I haven’t accumulated enough business value to release the software, and that’s the trick. If you’re a web-based small start-up, you might be accumulating business value every time your developers push. But if you’re in the enterprise software space, you will not be accumulating enough business value to push. Or you might be in the middle of a transition change of your business model or something. So that’s the second option, cut features. The third is except that you’re not going to hit your deadline and change your date. If you don’t have a market window driving your release, or regulatory environment driving your release date, then maybe that’s the right thing to do. The problem is that everyone in the software community that you talk to has their set of experiences that brought them to where they are. And they will stereotypically, reflexively, and without due consideration pick one of those choices. And I’m being a little simplistic admittedly. But in general, people in the waterfall community will tend to throw resources at the problem, people in the Agile community will tend to cut features, and very few people will be willing to extend the date because suddenly they think dates are mists, dates are sacrosanct. I think dates are important but sometimes they can be adjusted.

Lisette: It sounds like what you’re saying is that each one of these is an option that needs to be looked at and considered in its entirety. So whether you have a preference for one or the other, that’s fine, but you could still look at the other options in their entirety, it sounds. I mean it sounds much easier said than done.

Luke: Let’s go back to what you just said because you nailed it. The issue isn’t that we have our individual preferences; the issue is that in collaboration with my teammates around the world, if I can’t find a common foundation, then I’m going to make really negative assumptions, not because I’m a bad person, but because I haven’t had a conversation. If you go back to game theory, you can say that one of the things that… People say we argue too much in business. And I’m like, of course, we argue too much. We’re argumentative creatures. But the trick is not do we argue, it’s are we arguing the right way. No one complains about how we argue when we’re playing a card game with our friends because we’ve chosen to argue that way. And so what games and serious games give us in business is they give us a structured way to engage in productive, goal-driven, human-centric, positive arguments. That’s what we’re after. So going back to this notion of my software is late. What do I do? Well, maybe the product manager is under the assumption that the date is sacrosanct and they’re going to cut features. And without talking to the head of sales and the head of marketing in the other parts of the world, they don’t realize that there are five customers that are really waiting on two or three features. And they don’t care about the date; they care about those features. And those customers happen to just represent 45 percent of total corporate revenue. And if the product manager would in fact have that conversation, then they would say, “You know, we can live with the month delay. That’s fine. And let’s make sure that we’re setting up the right measures and outcomes.” Or they could say “look, there’s this team that was on the project. We can add them back in. It’ll be a minimal impact in this other area. Let’s add some resources because we’ve got time and we can cheat Brooks’ Law a little bit.” And this happens in other areas. I’m a company that’s expanding into another country. The country expansion is not going well. What do I do? Well, maybe the headquarters thinks that pulling back would be a terrible idea, and maybe the country that you’ve expanded into wishes you would because you’re not ready. And these are not people who are evil. These are not people who are making inappropriate assumption. They’re actually putting the best construction forward. But they’re not having the conversation in the right way about the issue. And what our software platform does is it allows you to literally take these complex systems, look at the actions and look at the drawbacks, and then what we do is we build visualizations of where the group thinks common ground or the foundation exists for taking action. And we’ve done some trials where we were able to help a group realize based on before the conversations occur and then after the conversations occur. We can show them changes of opinion that deliberation makes, like wow! I came into this conversation thinking that we had to cut features, and I walked out of this conversation realizing that the right choice for the company, based on what we believe, is to delay the date. Now we could still be wrong because we can’t predict the future, but what we can do is create a foundation for action in a complex wicked problem that gives people power to act, and that’s what we’re after.

Lisette: It sounds to me that the process is far less frustrating than having these long meeting discussions that seem to circle round and around sometimes when we’re talking about complex problems. It seems like this gives that structure. I mean if you wish you’re somebody that really doesn’t like confrontation and you have to solve a very complex wicked problem or make a big decision, then you could find a way to do that collaboratively with taking everybody’s values into account or maybe everybody’s preferences into account. It’s interesting. I’ve known for a long time that in the gaming world, the online collaborative games like World of Warcraft for example, have been shown as prime examples for how collaboration can work without a central organizational system. These are groups of people that have never met in person that are coming together and are solving big problems together. And we’re taking that theory from that world and applying it to business. It sound like it’s a lot more fun.

Luke: Yeah. Well, again, fun is a constructed relationship. Let me come back to fun for a second. You earlier asked people don’t come to us and say, “I’m having problems collaborating”; what they come to us and say are things like my decisions don’t stick. We have a meeting and we agree on a course of action, and then two months later, everyone revisits and we say, “Well, you know, I was thinking about that, and I want to revisit that decision. That course of action that we agreed to, I want to come back to.” That’s a sign that they did not engage a collaborative process that enabled them to have the right conversation so that the decision did stick. When people use our techniques for things like prioritization, we actually have documented sometimes as much as three months of improvement in execution time because the right conversations had that scale with the right people. The results clearly show what the group feels are the right projects to engage or the right actions to take, and now we can get to work – as opposed to the wrong people were involved or not enough people were involved. The notion of what you said about World of Warcraft or other collaborative games is interesting. What I invite adults who listen to this to do is if you have kids and you go home, explore the meaning of fun with your kids because I’ve gone home with my kids and they’ll say, “Dad, how was work today?” And I’ll say, “I had a really fun day.” And I remember one time, she was much younger, she was in kindergarten, Josephine, one of my daughters, said, “Oh, what games did you play?” I’m like, “Well, I actually didn’t play any games today, Jo. I had a really fun day.” And she goes, “Well, how did you have fun?” And then it really struck me is that we use fun as a code word to mean intense feelings of engagement and satisfaction from being utilized according to our talents. And so I said “well, okay Jo, I didn’t have fun like you had fun at kindergarten where you got to play in the playground, but daddy’s version of fun is he was helping a client solve a problem. And I felt that I was used, and my contribution was such that I really helped this person meet their needs. And she’s like, “Oh, so you had fun because you were helping others.” And I said yes. But in our company, we use the word fun very cautiously because most of the time, adults use the word fun as a simple substitute for far deeper things that are not about, in a sense, laughter – although laughter can be at work, of course. But when we say I had a fun day, usually what we mean is I felt engaged. I felt that I was using my talents to my ability. The problems that I was given are the problems that I love to solve.

Lisette: Right. I feel satisfied.

Luke: I feel satisfied. It’s like a good meal. I didn’t overeat, but the food that I ate was very tasty. Satiated, my brain has been satiated.

Lisette: Right. It’s true. There’s contentment there, I think. And you’re right. All of those things, all of those components are really what happiness at work seems to be pointing towards, and so however we can do that.

Luke: That’s a big research goal of ours. We’re committed to building and it’s starting down the process of building psychographic profiles of people as they play so that we can align the problems that your brain are best tuned to solve to the problems that are facing the business. So for example, we know through certain psychographic profiles like the Kirton Adapter-Innovator Scale that some people’s problem-solving nature is adaptive. And by adaptive, we mean we’re better at optimizing or working within existing structures. And some people, according to the KAI… I wish it was a different word, but they use the word innovative or innovator to mean a person who works without structure or creates a structure as needed for a task at hand. And there’s a kind of yin-yang relationship. If I know your KAI score and I know the kind of innovation or divergent thinking problem that we’re facing, I could actually engage you with different people and produce more satisfying results for you and actually provably better results for you. So let’s go back to the notion of processed improvement. If I’m working in a software company and I want to improve my process, typically the adaptors are going to work a little better at improving an existing process. If I am in a software company and let’s say I’m moving from a waterfall-ish model to an Agile model, then my innovators are going to be the ones that are going to lead the charge because they’re comfortable working in an environment where the processes are not as well defined and they can help define them. And knowing that about you and looking at the star ratings or the Torrance Creativity Scale, knowing who you are as a person and knowing how your brain thinks… One of my great missions in life is to take demographics out of knowledge work because I don’t really care if you’re a male or a female or if you wear size 12 shoe or you like the color blue. None of that matters. And all of that matters if you’re building cars or shoes or snowboards or chairs. That all matters. But for what we do in knowledge work, none of that matters. And we would like to create a movement towards psychographic modeling so that we can really play to your strengths. We can really truly help you be successful according to how you are as a person.

Lisette: It’s interesting that you say that. I’ll need to get you in touch with somebody else that I’ve interviewed who created a virtual game for teams called Play Prelude that essentially takes the psychometrics of all the team members and puts them together. It just shows them to the teams so that you know what kind of person you’re dealing with. And there’s an art project that you do together and it’s a game for how to tune your virtual team at the beginning of the project, how to learn more about each other and how each other works? So it sounds very similar to what you’re doing there. I’ll put you guys in touch.

Luke: Oh great, yeah. And I think there are a lot of people. The good news about a billion plus to four billion people being online is that no matter what idea you have, you’re not alone. And you can find tribes that care about these things. So I wouldn’t claim that we’re alone. I think that we have some structural advantages in what we’re doing because of how we organize massively large-scale play. We frame it as single-player – like how do I make sense of what’s going on. Single team – how do I work in my small team? Or multi-team – how do I have 20, 30, 40, 50, 80, 100 teams solve problems together? And that’s really the model because in the game community, they all say single-player, multiplayer, and massively multiplayer. Multiple players in World of Warcraft isn’t really what’s happening. It’s really single player, single team, multi-team. And that’s how we work in Agile. We work in single-team and multi-team structures.

Lisette: Very interesting. I know we’re nearing the top and there are a couple of more things that I wanted to ask you about. One is do you have more people doing these kinds of things online? Or is it more co-located people? Do remote teams gravitate towards this a little bit more? Or is there no difference there at all?

Luke: If you do have distributed team members, you’re going to be using online techniques; that’s a given.

Lisette: For all your games online techniques?

Luke: No, that’s a different question. I was going to say I hate punting on questions. I actually have no idea how broadly applied our stuff is because as a book author, I keep finding places where people are using my stuff, sometimes without crediting me – which is always a little disappointing. But nonetheless, we keep finding around the world, like people will send me emails, which is very gratifying. “Hey, I’m using your stuff.” And when it’s in-person, I’m unaware of it. So we do obviously see our online growth quite nicely. The second thing is do distributed teams use our stuff? And the answer is sure. But there are other tools. And I’m not opposed to the communication or coordination tools. For example, if you’re using VersionOne or Rally or JIRA or Acunote or those kinds of tools, those aren’t really collaboration tools. Those are coordination tools. And we need coordination tools. We need tools to know whose task is doing this. Who’s working on this? So usually a distributed team will start with a coordination tool and then move into higher forms of collaboration over time.

Lisette: Right. And that’s where you guys come in, where people want to become a well-oiled machine. Once you’ve got your Trello board down and whatever you’re using, and then you really want to start…

Luke: There are tools that exist, Trello and other kinds of things.

Lisette: There are hundreds. I’m a tool junkie, so I’ve got a spreadsheet if anybody needs advice on that.

Luke: Yeah, I mean there you go, 37 signals. And most of the time, the tool that you like, from a coordination standpoint… And I’m friends with all the tool vendors, and full disclosure, all of the tool vendors use our stuff. Confluence used my game product box to promote their last release and VersionOne uses our stuff for prioritization, things like that, which is great. We love them all. Once a tool gets adopted by a team, the team creates a social knowledge system around the tool, and the tool becomes its little thing. It’s people like you and I who might try different tools. But once a tool is adopted by a team, there are good reasons for them to maintain consistency on that tool. Now you asked also are all of my games online. And the answer is at this time, no, partly because it’s far easier to generate rules and new games in person than online because online code takes longer than just designing a rule and play-testing it. The other thing is some of my games are designed for physical interaction and physical creation. And I don’t know how to put the act of building something online per se. They may go online over time as our company grows, but I don’t hold it to be true that in-person and online are always equal. In fact, we’ve got growing evidence that buy a feature online is provably better than buy a feature in person. So for most of my clients, when we’re doing buy a feature, we really recommend that they use the online version because the evidence that it’s better is starting to become fairly overwhelming.

Lisette: Right. So just like anything, there are going to be some things that work online, some things that work better in person, and you basically just have to choose what’s going to work best for your team or your situation. Not everybody can be together and not everybody can work remotely; there’s a mix of it. What I think is really important about what you’re doing – it actually comes down to the core of why I started becoming passionate about remote working – is the idea that we can solve really important problems if we get the right people working on the solution from anywhere. And often, the right people are not in the same room. And the way it started for me was I built an online project management tool for somebody actually working in the Bay Area. I helped build the tool. And he was building the tool not to create an online project management system, but rather he didn’t want to die and he wanted longevity scientists to be able to collaborate and share ageing data and solve the problem of ageing. And that’s what he was building the tool for. And of course, it’s a very lofty goal which I love, but something snapped for me when I thought, aha, he’s right. If he can get the top longevity scientists from all over the world, wherever they may be, working together, whatever the tools it is that they use, he wanted them to get together and collaborate and finally solve ageing. And that’s when something snapped for me on why remote working was important. But actually, what it comes down to, it’s not remote working, it’s collaboration.

Luke: That’s right. And the wonderful thing is the web has always been about collaboration. I always invite people in the collaborative space, just once in your life watch The Mother of All Demos with Douglas Engelbart in 1968. If you haven’t watched that demo, then you’re missing out what the vision has been for a long time. In 1968, Doug Engelbart in The Mother of All Demos demonstrated real-time videoconferencing with hypertext collaborative document editing in 1968. It blows your mind to think that what he was demoing is now just coming online. So that capability is just unbelievable. What’s happened is now have the zorch, and that was my advisor, Elliot Soloway, used to say zorch. And zorch was his term for the combination of bitmap displays that are high-quality resolution. You and I are on a videoconferencing around the world. The feed is live. It’s beautiful. So we’ve got enough bandwidth. We’ve got enough storage. We’ve got enough processing capability. We’ve got enough memory. We’ve got a different infrastructure for collaboration, and now it’s up to us to build those tools that go that next step because we can do that.

Lisette: Right. It’s just a new form of collaboration. We’ve been doing this for years and years. It’s just the new way of doing it. And what I find odd is this form of collaboration has been around now. I think this is the earliest that I’ve heard an example, 1968. Second Life, virtual worlds, these things have been around for 20-25 years now, and still it hasn’t caught on because it’s hard and it’s new.

Luke: Here’s what I think about Second Life: I think second life is a half step between communication and collaboration. The issue with really collaborative work that games bring into this is that games bring the clarity of rules and the clarity of constraint so that you are accomplishing the goal. So I go to Second Life and I say I’m going to have a meeting in Second Life. I’m going to have a meeting and go to meeting. I’m going to have a meeting in WebEx. Well, that’s great, but that’s nowhere near as powerful. Put it another way: all of the collaboration vendors use Conteneo’s Buy a Feature to prioritize project portfolios. Why is that? It’s a simple question. Why aren’t you using WebEx or GoToMeeting or Scopia or other tools to prioritize your project portfolios? And this is not a ding on those companies because WebEx and Scopia and GoToMeeting are great tools. I use them. But when the goal is I want to prioritize my project portfolio…

Lisette: It’s not the right tool for the job.

Luke: It’s not the right tool for the job, and games are. That’s the point.

Lisette: This is will be second to the last question; last one will be very easy. What is the hesitation? Why are people hesitating in going this route? Because it sounds very compelling to me.

Luke: Because they’re afraid that if they use the word game, they’re associating the word “game” and “play” with frivolity and lack of seriousness and lack of gravitas. Even though the brain scans of someone at play is indistinguishable from someone who’s paid at work when the task is enjoyable, we believe that work and play are distinct and they shouldn’t be the same. And it’s really just helping people realize that all higher-order creatures play – from birds and cats to dolphins and humans and bears and everything else. As a corollary, since all higher-order creatures play, all higher-order creatures lie – which is very interesting too. So we just have to allow ourselves to say these better ways of solving problems are what we’re completely focused on, and allow ourselves to use the word game at work without saying, oh, it’s about education or whatever. So sometimes I tell people you don’t have to call it a game. By the way, I did a project for the United States Military Department. And one of my sponsors said, “Maybe we shouldn’t call it a game.” I said, “Okay, sir.” And when I stood up in the room of one and two star generals, a hundred people working, if you want to talk about a challenging problem, the goal of the day’s session was helping the U.S. move from healthcare to health.

Lisette: Oh my [laughs].

Luke: Let’s tackle the biggest problem facing us: obesity and poor health. So all I was told was to stand up in front of this room, tick them off but don’t use the word game. So I said something like this. I don’t remember exactly. Hi everyone. Welcome. Really glad you’re here. Today we’re going to engage in a series of goal-directed activities that have clearly defined rules of engagement with well-defined constraints. From these, you will produce amazing outcomes that will power a set of actions after the meeting. And everyone was like, “Let’s get to it.”

Lisette: Really?

Luke: Oh yeah.

Lisette: I would’ve been like, “Oh, it’s going to be a long day.” [laughs].

Luke: But you’re a military person, so you want a goal which is your mission. You want to know what your rules of engagement are. You want to know what your constraints are – how much, in a sense, ammunition you have and you want to know what’s going to happen next. What’s the multidimensional step? And so I looked up at my sponsor in the back of the room just smiled because he had been through my training and he knew I gave the definition of a game. So what I tell people in my training is if you’re working in a company that may not respond or resonate with this, just say that you’re engaging in a strategic, goal-directed activity with clearly defined rules of engagement and well-defined or well-described constraints that will enable action after the activity is done.

Lisette: Brilliant.

Luke: You’re playing a game.

Lisette: [laughs]. Brilliant. Yeah, I mean in a way, you’re learning to speak somebody else’s language, the stuff that they understand. And my family is military, so I find that particularly amusing.

Luke: Yeah.

Lisette: So the final question then is if people want to learn more about you or contact you to ask more about this, what’s the best way?

Luke: You go to conteneo.co. So we’re trying to be a cool new company and use .co instead of .com. But go to conteneo.co or innovationgames.com.

Lisette: Okay, great. I’ll make sure to put that in the liner notes as well. Well, thanks so much. I’m extra inspired today. I don’t normally focus on the collaboration aspect. I’m usually focused on the remote aspect. But it’s hand in hand. It’s got my brain spinning. So I appreciate the conversation. Thank you.

Luke: Thank you so much, and thanks everyone for watching.

Lisette: All right. So until next time everybody, be powerful.


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