Using games for brainstorming is really great. Instead of doing a standard meeting, the idea is to set a series of rules, and then play that game. There is a clear beginning, once the rules have been explained and everybody agrees to play by the rules. Then when the game is being played, the participants are free to explore the ‘game space’ that are all the possible situations that we can reach by applying the predefined rules. And there is an end when the declared goal is reached.
image from book Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunny Brown and James Macanufo
Some goals are clearly defined like the ones limited by time: for example to come up in 3 minutes with as many ideas or words around a subject as possible. Others have no time constraints; the end is to reach a desired end situation as in the 4-in-line or chess games.
But typically, in real situations where there is need of brainstorming, the goal is not so clear. For problems that need creativity, new ideas or innovation usually the goal cannot be fully defined; it’s more like a general purpose. We may have a general direction on where we want to go and we count on measures to see if we have succeeded.
But why playing a game for brainstorming? Because we just love playing games but more important because when we are on a game we feel free to explore all the alternatives and go beyond conventions. And that facilitates innovative ideas to come up. We just free ourselves from standard agreed conventions to cover all the possible alternatives that the rules of the game offer us.
As an example, I can mention the story of Timothy Ferriss, author of ‘The 4-hour workweek’ that won the gold medal at the Chinese Kickboxing National Championships. He did not use to practice kickboxing, but he read the rules of that sport, and he explore the ‘game space’ of the Championship. He then took advantage of 2 loopholes to participate with only 4-weeks of preparation! One of the rules said that if the combatant fell off the platform 3 times in the row, his opponent won by default. Another one allowed him to play in classes of lower weight than what he should have played in. Those 2 rules combined made him the World Champion on Kickboxing. He was not really playing; he was just pushing his opponents and won with that technique. For sure you can argue it is not a fair way of winning, but it’s an interesting way of thinking in order to reach the goal of the game.
Another example comes from my son who had an assignment last year at the university: to program a robot so that it will follow a circuit, then it has to throw a piece of wood as far as it could and finishes by going back to its parking place. There were points for each action: to reach the start line, to follow the path without going out of the route, to throw the piece of wood in a predetermined place and also to go back to the garage. The path was unknown, only revealed at the time of the exam. When the fatidic day came, the path that was presented to them was quite complicated and most of the robots failed. But in one of the teams they had a ‘plan B’ that was a different set of programming instructions: they only programmed the robot to do the tasks that gave points with the minimum risk: go to the starting point, go to the predetermined place and throw the piece of wood and then return to the garage. The robot didn’t even try to do the circuit, but with that strategy they were one of the 5 finalists! Again, this is the same situation as with Timothy Ferriss: it doesn’t feel fair even if it played by the rules, but worked for the assignement.
Now if your survival is at stake, let’s imagine a planetary catastrophe, wouldn’t it be good to have a ‘B’ strategy on your sleeve?