Project Management Institute

Games that teach

not an option for success

If you want to know everything there is to know about cats in
three seconds, pick one up by the tail.
Mark Twain


Games and metaphors provide powerful teaching tools that can help adult learners digest complex concepts and retain them long after the training session is over. Games shortcut hours of lectures and detailed explanations.

Project Management and the Movies

I got my advanced degree in Project Management from Russell Crowe. In the 2003 Peter Weir film, Crowe plays Jack Aubrey, captain of the HMS Surprise. Aside from all the blood-and-guts swashbuckling there are some valuable lessons in this tale.

Most valuable to me is the scene where the young midshipmen learn about navigation. They struggle with the intricacies of the sextant, the best technology of the day. Because the Royal Navy perfected the chronometer, a portable watch unaffected by ocean movement, British Naval ships always knew when noon was. By knowing the sun's position at noon, they could calculate latitude; they found out where they were, as opposed to where they would like to be. Sound familiar?

Then the midshipmen rush down to the Quarter Deck, unroll the navigating charts, and compare the chart (the plan) with where they really are (actuals). If they discover they are where they are supposed to be they shake hands, down their daily ration of grog, and carry on. If they are off course, they have to determine how far they are off course and what to do about it. Up goes the call to the helmsman: “Change course two degrees East Southeast!” The helmsman fires back, “Aye, aye, sir! Change course two degrees East Southeast!” I believe A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) calls this Corrective Action.

What if our project teams truly understood the necessity of regular actual data collection to determine whether or not we are on course? Actual data is not just for the Captain (Project Manager), but for the whole ship, for the survival of the mission.

What Games Do

Adults enter into the training environment with all the baggage of their daily life: larger issues of family, money, or job, to say nothing of daily struggles like missing breakfast, traffic jams, or that annoying squeal coming off the left rear axle of the car. To break these preoccupations and grab their attention for my training message I have to hook them. Slap them upside of the head to break their trance of attachments with their world and bring them into mine. A good game captivates people, temporarily making them forget whatever else is on their mind. If the game also teaches something, I have achieved two goals.

The “hook”, as this is known in communication studies, is vital. It's the first sixty seconds of a TV show to which you stay tuned after the first commercial break. It's the first five minutes of a movie that assures you that you can settle back in your seat and forget about your popcorn. It's the opening line of a good newspaper feature. Once an audience is hooked, you have time and space in which to deliver your most powerful messages.

About Games

Everyone knows how to play. Modern learning theorists understand that without play we cannot learn. Play offers the ability to experiment, make mistakes, practice skills, and be spontaneous in the face of a challenge.

A substantial body of creativity and invention literature suggests play is crucial for these processes to be successful. The humdrum world is full of repetitive activities. We learn something, how to type or how to drive a car, and do it over and over again without much variation. But when your opponent is trying to trick you in a fast tennis serve, or you encounter a four-par hole on a golf course you've never played, some creative part rises to the fore. How can we do it differently? How can we meet this challenge?

The ABC Game

The ABC game has been introduced to well over twenty thousand participants at HP, Sun Microsystems, Owens-Corning, Mobil Oil, and a host of other companies over the past 16 years. A team sits so they cannot see each other face to face. They must pass messages to each other without speaking. Their objective is to determine which of five symbols on an instruction sheet are shared in common. Only one member of the team (Player A) knows that is the goal.

If Player A sends a message to everyone explaining the objective, the exercise can be concluded in less than five minutes. But Player A rarely does that. They assume that everyone must know the goal of the project? What is everyone else's problem?

How often do senior executives assume that everyone on a project knows what they are supposed to be doing? Have the executives articulated goals and objectives clearly and succinctly? Recently? To everyone?

Success in the ABC game requires everyone's participation. You can't just decide to leave out some key stakeholder for political reasons or because you just forgot them.

The key learning of the whole exercise then is:

Communicate Objectives to Everyone

The Project Manager must determine the objectives of the project early on. Sounds like the project chartering process to me.

The Project Manager must understand who the “everyone” is. Sounds like stakeholder identification to me.

Are not chartering and stakeholder identification key aspects of project initiation? (By the way, Stakeholder Identification is not explicitly mentioned as an Initiation process in the PMBOK® Guide! Is this an omission?)

Shouldn't we hammer these key learnings into anyone receiving an introduction to the project management discipline? Shouldn't we ensure that seasoned project managers understand the subtleties of these processes?

We drive home these key learnings through participants' frustration with a fifteen minute game. These frustrations are not unfamiliar. We have all experienced them in projects.

Multi-layering Games

Once the backbone of a game is created, the skillful designer can find ways to embellish it to add new learnings. With the ABC game, for example:

  • The instructor may babble non-stop while participants are trying to work. Anyone ever bothered by cubicle noise?
  • You can add an instruction that says, “You may not show your symbols to anyone?' How can a team be successful if they can't share their symbols? Have you ever been told on a project that you can't share information with a key stakeholder?
  • Messages are not passed directly back and forth among team members. An additional player handles the “messenger” function, slowing up communication. Have you every waited two days for an e-mail from a key stakeholder whose input you needed to complete a critical activity?

Designing Games

Like any information work assignment, creating a game that delivers a fun, but gut-punching, message requires understanding the requirements. What is the real problem in this organization and what is the best, fun way to hold that up to people so they can take a look at it and start to work on it?

In the virtual landscape of 21st century the greatest challenge may be just getting a team together in the same room. Virtual simulations are wonderful challenges and can afford a break from the day's activities if they run over a one or two week period Also, as in any game, participants must have certain skills (run, dribble, shoot) in order to participate effectively.

A final word about adult learning principles

Most adults don't like to be talked at for very long. An authoritative speaker can be a wonderfully inspiring experience. But once you get back to your desk, how can you apply that inspiration?

Games and exercises allow adult learners to gain practical experience. They gather the confidence that their solution to a problem, while not the one coming from a recognized authority figure, nevertheless works. Isn't this what we are trying to do in management development sessions? Not so much teach people formulaic answers to problems, but to instill the confidence in their own innate wisdom that can meet any challenge.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

©2005 Roger Kent
Originally published as a part of PMI Global Congress Proceedings 2005 – Toronto, Canada



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