Gamestorming the Future

The future is impossible to predict. Readiness is as much about resiliency as it is about strategy. Exploring the future with a cross-section of your business is one way to improve resilience. Teams discuss business challenges while learning about the perspectives of other disciplines in their business and forging relationships with other leaders.

Recently two colleagues and I were asked to lead our Global Leadership Team in a 'Future of the Business' exploration (hat-tip to Jason and Martyn). We invented this gamestorming exercise and it worked so well I thought I'd add it to the webosphere. 

Gamestorming is brainstorming tools for "innovators, rule-breakers, and changemakers". We wanted a game that let participants explore the future challenges and not just runaway success or business as usual. And we wanted to provide practical experience for participants in 'storytelling' the business. Storytelling as effective business communication is highly valued in our organization and many of us are reading and improving our storytelling as communication technique.

This gamestorm includes a twist guaranteed to force teams to grapple with business challenge and disruption!

Title: Back to the Future / Back to the Board

Set-Up: It's five years in the future. Your team is the executive leadership of Company X. You are presenting on the last five years of progress to the board of Company X, and how you've gotten Company X to where it is today. Who are our key customers? what is new to our business? what were the big surprises? what changes hit us (and did we see them coming)?

Prepare your summary to the board in the form of business stories - no presentation slides allowed! 

Your story should touch on three aspects of the Company X business:

  1. Business
  2. Finances
  3. People

You should not just focus on positive outcomes - the strongest stories will openly address negative challenges and how they were weathered or overcome. 

Execution: Rough timing guidelines - 10 minutes of instruction, 75 minutes of gamestorming, 6 minutes of story time per team at the end. We gave prizes for best success story, best comeback from failure, and best storytelling. These are optional.

The Twist: 20 minutes into the gamestorm - play is interrupted and each team is given two Black Swans. Black swans are unexpected events of business disruption. The team is instructed to incorporate at least ONE of the black swans into their story. The team has NOT been instructed about black swans or any disruption to the game at this point. Example black swans include:

  • a competitor buys a key business partner
  • several members of leadership depart to start their own company
  • government or charitable foundations announce major investments that threaten or empower company X
  • a major client departs

The intent is to force teams to grapple with challenges they hadn't anticipated. Two swans are provided to give teams some flexibility ensuring the exercise isn't so hard teamplay crumbles.

Execution Tips: 

  • Develop swans relevant to your business - be specific, be tough, think about the things your business is actually worried about. Our swans were specific enough that they can't be repeated here!
  • Balances swans - organize the swans in pairs that don't overlap. The swans will impact clients, people, finance, competitors. Give each team two distinctly different swans. If one swan greatly impacts a customer, make the other swan about an internal factor.
  • Facilitator float - teams need to gel in the first 15-20 minutes. We found that by floating around to teams we could answer questions about the game, and aid the teams in getting on a track before the swans were introduced. 
  • Make storytelling the focus - we didn't express this enough in our instructions, but feedback after pointed out that the best way to get teams rolling is to get them to focus on the main element of a story - the conflict. Everything falls into place around that.

Storytelling 101: A slide deck we used to introduce the game can be found here. The intro concludes on the key piece of advice for the game. Teams should focus on determining the conflict first. "Throw life out of balance". Teams that start here will find discussion on how they got to the conflict (the build up) and how they resolved it (the resoluton ) will be much easier to reason about.

Our Experience: This gamestorm worked extremely well. All teams were able to incorporate a swan, and many of them actually found swans that fit and stretched them to expand their analysis and story. Tough topics were addressed in almost all team stories - the exercise rewards grappling with the hard stuff, and thinking about what the outcomes could be.