How game theory can pump up your collaboration

Gamification earned effusive praise and fiery backlash in business circles during the past several years. Where do we stand now? Can your business still benefit from game theory?

Game theory has already withstood the test of time

Gamification can impact many different parts of your business: you may make your customer experience more game-oriented (think Foursquare badges), you may revamp marketing strategies (e.g. loyalty programs), or you may focus on your internal processes. For the purposes of this post, we’ll largely be considering the latter. And in that context, game theory is hardly a new kid on the block.

“Economists, political scientists and the military have used its principles since the 1950s,” says Mitchell Osak.

The eclecticism of the groups of people deploying game theory goes well beyond that.

“Unlike physics or chemistry, which have a clearly defined and narrow scope, the precepts of game theory are useful in a whole range of activities, from everyday social interactions and sports to business and economics, politics, law, diplomacy and war,” says game theory expert Avinash Dixit.

Using games to encourage true collaboration – not competition or mere communication

“Communication is a part of collaboration, to be sure, but communication isn’t collaboration,” said Conteneo founder and CEO Luke Hohmann during one of this year’s Collabosphere keynotes. It’s not enough to just get team members talking to each other or participating in a fun little exercise without strategy behind it. A game provides the means of unifying around a common challenge or goal, and learning how to best work together to accomplish the goals (working with a given set of rules and constraints).

Even some “collaboration tools” fails to recognize this difference between collaboration and communication. Better communication can certainly make you more efficient; smarter collaboration can re-shape how you approach your work in the first place.

Among the business challenges Hohmann has seen addressed by games: prioritization, organizational alignment around corporate values, roadmap and release planning, and figuring out how to hold on to Agile methodology even in large corporations.

You’ll likely run into some eye rolls if you announce a fun new way to align employees around your corporate values; at least some of your team members will be skeptical of a “spoonful of sugar” approach. But once you get them going, even the skeptics are likely to be won over.

“They’ve done brain scan studies of two adults collaborating on PowerPoint marketing presentations and two children building a Lego city and guess what? They’re the same,” Hohmann said. “Same brain centers ignited, same feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment.”

While many likely associate games with some sort of competitive element, Hohmann notes that the “dominate and win” mentality doesn’t actually carry over to many games, aside from a few famous American classics. “If you play ruthlessly in Monoplogy, you win. If you play ruthlessly in many of the games designed by people in other cultures, everyone loses, including you,” he said.

Making tough choices

It’s a lot easier to make recommendations than to set priorities. Hohmann gave the example of a local city government that used game theory to 1) engage previously voiceless citizens and 2) encourage citizens to understand the domino effect of decisions (yes, everyone wants a better library… but at what cost to other community priorities?).

This doesn’t mean you’re setting up a democracy. Leaders still must lead. But if, as an exec, you lay out 20 possible priorities for your business and no one else chooses the one you’d personally place atop the list, it’s time to reevaluate. That doesn’t mean choosing a different lead priority – again, leaders must lead – but it certainly means you’ll have to do a better job of explaining the reasons behind your decision.

Optimizing collaboration in large crowds

If you’re working for a company with a million employees, you have a lot of coworkers, but potentially not very many collaborators.

“Humans in general do not collaborate in group sizes larger than eight,” says Hohmann. By breaking impossibly large groups into smaller, action-oriented groups – like the example above of literally bringing citizens to the table to help work through complex city budgets – businesses can better leverage what is (hopefully) their best resource: their own people.

Reaching new employees on their turf

“Millennials entering the workforce have played more video games than have watched TV for the first time ever,” Hohmann said. “They are expecting to use games at work – and if we don’t meet them on their terms, we’ll lose them forever.” This is a point Jacob Morgan makes in his new book, The Future of Work: “Organizations can no longer assume that people need to work there, so they have to create an environment where people want to work there. If they don’t, then they aren’t going to be able to attract, retain or grow top talent.”

Watch Luke Hohmann’s Collabosphere session below:

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.