Game-Based Learning for Teams – Episode 30

In this episode, Beth Cougler Blom talks with Alexandra Suchman about game-based experiential learning and how games can be leveraged to support teams.

Beth and Alexandra also talk about:

  • what game-based experiential learning is
  • the levels of depth we can accomplish through games
  • choosing games to meet desired outcomes
  • including reflective elements in games
  • getting confident in facilitating games with groups

Engage with Alexandra Suchman

Other Links from the Episode

Connect with the Facilitating on Purpose Podcast

Connect with Beth Cougler Blom

Podcast production services by Mary Chan of Organized Sound Productions

Show Transcript

[Upbeat music playing]

[Show intro]
Beth
Welcome, to Facilitating on Purpose, where we explore ideas together about designing and facilitating learning. Join me to get inspired on your journey to becoming and being a great facilitator wherever you work. I’m your host, Beth Cougler Blom.

[Episode intro]
Beth Cougler Blom

Hello, thank you so much for being here. This is episode 30. Welcome back to the podcast if you’ve joined us to listen to previous episodes. And welcome for the first time if you have never joined us before and are interested in hearing topics around designing and facilitating learning. I’m glad you’re here.

In this episode, I interview Alexandra Suchman. Alex and I met when she and I were both invited to go on the podcast called Women Talking about Learning. Just as an aside, I really recommend that podcast if you are in the learning and development space. I’ve listened to many episodes as well as having been a guest myself, as I just mentioned, on the show. So go check it out because there’s lots of great learning to be had in that other podcast.

So Alex and I met on Women Talking about Learning and literally we met each other right before we started to record the other episode, but we were able to connect after and started talking about what she does in her company, which is all about game-based experiential learning. And so that’s the topic of our episode together today.

In this episode, Alex and I talk about what we can accomplish when we use games in our facilitation. What does it do for the company? What does it do for the individuals at that company? How does it help people work better together? We really go into the why of games and including them in our facilitated events – meetings or workshops. And we talk about how to do that as well. How do we choose games for different purposes? What are some of the challenges or the pitfalls that come up when we’re picking games and facilitating people through them? How do we make sure that we incorporate the experiential part of game-based experiential learning into the facilitated events as well? There’s so much that we dive into. So get your notebook ready to capture some thoughts and some ideas about game-based experiential education. I hope you enjoy the show.

Beth Cougler Blom
Alex, it’s so great to see you. Thanks for joining me on the podcast today.

Alex Suchman
Thank you so much for inviting me.

Beth
I look forward to having another conversation with you. We were so happily put together on the Women Talking About Learning podcast, and I’ve been looking forward to this for a while. I’m just happy to talk to you today about game-based experiential learning.

Alex
Yes, it seems like it was so serendipitous that we were matched together for the Women Talking About Learning. That was such a great conversation.

Beth
It was, and it’s funny that we were sort of thrown together and then it just happily makes these connections. And we’re really in two different locations and we’re quite far – we’re actually three time zones apart from each other, aren’t we? (Yeah.) So it’s nice to put together. Yeah.

Alex
Different countries, different time zones. Yeah.

Beth
Let’s talk a little bit about the work that you do. I know you have your own company, so tell me how did you get – you know, maybe the short story [chuckles] of how you got to where you are today in your company and why you chose the topic of game-based experiential learning to centre your company work around. What is it about that topic that really made you think, “I’m going to start a company around this, and this is what we want to do.”

Alex
The funny thing is I never chose it. It just came up and I got really obsessed with it. It was a side project for a while. So right before I started – my company is called Barometer XP – before I started it I had my own consulting business where I was doing process improvement and operations and systems, organization development type work. A lot of it centred around what sounded like very straightforward projects. You know, a company needed to build a shared drive so that people could access the same files – it was pre-Covid, so there weren’t version-control issues and everyone had access to the institutional knowledge that they needed. Again it sounds super straightforward: you just make a bunch of folders and put all the stuff in it and people access it. But everybody uses that information very differently and people have different ways of categorizing ideas and organizing things in their minds. So coming up with an organizational system that multiple people would have to use and find useful – in order to do that you have to get a lot of different stakeholders’ feedback. You have to put different suggestions forward and iterate on it. And if the people involved don’t feel bought into the need for the change or they don’t trust other people or they feel territorial about the way that they do things, you can’t have those open conversations and it’s going to limit the effectiveness of the solution.

So even though I was being brought in to do what sounded like pretty objective process improvement, or infrastructure development, it was the interpersonal aspect that was the most challenging. And I got very obsessed ‘with how do you fix that?’ And as an objective third-party person coming in, I could see so clearly the behavioural patterns that would lead to those sources of tension and conflict of, ‘well, this person’s a really detailed thinker and this person’s a more creative thinker. This person is coming from a background – you know, from the program side – but this person’s coming from the business analytics side.’ It was so obvious to me that they were just talking past each other and not understanding each other, or not recognizing how they might come across to people who perceive things differently. And in looking at how do you get people in that mindset, where they’re ready to learn or grow or transform and cultivate that reflective mindset, I stumbled upon my now co-founder who’s a game designer, and the idea of using games as an almost controlled experiment for how people can interact with each other and practice seeing how they come off and how they show up and looking at other people. And so this really small niche side idea that we just experimented with and it really snowballed to the point where we said, ‘oh, we’ve created something and it’s actually a really big need. And if we want it to grow anymore, we have to turn it into a business and make it a bigger focus’.

Beth
Yeah, I love that! So it’s like you didn’t really take this direct route to this kind of company, but you found your way to it. Does that mean that you also fell into facilitation, as well? Like you basically had a different role description and all of a sudden you realized, ‘oh my gosh I’m having to facilitate all of these things?’ Is that what happened?

Alex
Yeah, and even before I was doing the facilitations/operations stuff, I’m in Washington, DC and spent 12 years in public policy, especially around health and social policy, I have always been a problem-solver and wanted to get better access to healthcare and better equity in education and economic outcomes, and was 22 [years old] and super idealistic and ready to change the world. And after about 10 years working in those spaces, I noticed just how dysfunctional the workplaces were, because there’s such a focus on the outcomes that you’re trying to achieve, that it’s almost looked down upon to spend any resource on processes and tools and infrastructure and intentional culture. There’s this idea that ‘we’re doing important work and we’re all smart people, so it’ll just come out in the wash and we’ll be successful.’ And the problems that were coming up over and over again and causing people to leave, or causing huge conflict, were really either small misunderstandings, or because there was no process or tool in place to do it and so things that should have been really quick and easy were made to be much more difficult. And for me, I was like ‘well OK everybody’s struggling because we don’t have a template for this, or because there’s no central way of organizing this. I’ll just create it and show everybody how to use it’. And so the facilitation piece started when I had to figure out, ‘OK I created the solution, but it will only work if people use it. So how do I get them onboard to using it and how do I engage them in the process?’ And realized that I loved that type of problem-solving. So I initially started doing it within the company that I was working for in addition to my role as a researcher and an analyst, and then I shifted to that being my focus.

Beth
It sounds like you have this really nice balance between process, systems, organizational stuff, for lack of a better word, and the people, relationships, culture – that’s been part of your career and you didn’t really think it was going to be like that, but it is. It takes both, doesn’t it?

Alex
Yeah. And I’ve used the phrase like ‘I’m almost like a translator/ambassador between right brain and left brain ways of thinking’. I can do both but see how each needs the other one. And so how do you get them to work together rather than live in different universes.

Beth
I think that makes for great facilitation. I mean, I’ve never seen you facilitate, but I feel like that’s a great skill. Both those sides are great skills to draw on to be able to work with people in any kind of a room, virtual or in-person.

Alex
Yeah. And it’s just constant reminder that the way that you see the world is one of 8 billion, and yours is no more or less real than anyone else’s, and if you can only see one as valid, you’re not going to get very far in your interactions with other people.

Beth
Yeah, definitely. That’s a nice, empathetic way to look at yourself in the world. I like that. So tell me about game-based experiential learning. Like, in some ways, it’s a bit of a mouthful [laughs].

Alex
Yeah, if anybody has an idea for a more succinct phrase, I am all ears.

Beth
Let us know! [laughs]. So tell us first, if we’re not quite sure what that means, tell me what that means and then give us a little bit about like what your company does around that to work with organizations in that way.

Alex
Yeah. So experiential learning, which I know you’ve had as a topic on your podcast before, is this process for learning where there’s some action, you do something, and then you reflect on ‘how was that, how did I show up, what did I notice, what came up?’ And then you mine those reflections for deeper insights that you can apply either to improve that particular process or situation or apply to other situations like it, and then you make an action plan and you do that, and then you sort of go through that iterative, reflecting cycle. The game-based is using games as that experience. If you think about any game that you’re playing with other people, whether it’s competitive or cooperative, whether it’s a board game or a video game, or charades, there’s some problem solving piece to it. You’re trying to accomplish something with other people, and there’s different levels of interaction that have to happen, whether you’re trying to best other people, beat them, whether you need to have – you know, your teammates get your clues, or you need to form alliances for strategy. And a lot of the same interpersonal dynamics that come up within games are very similar to what happens at work.

So games essentially become a way to practice the type of interactions that you’re going to have with people. In the reflective aspect of the experiential learning, you’re looking at how did you communicate? What were you feeling and thinking? What patterns did you notice about yourself and about other people? What would it be helpful to understand either about the situation or about how other people approach the game? Then from those insights, how can you leverage that for better interactions going forward? The game itself becomes the experiential piece of the experiential learning cycle.

Beth
And are those games usually low stakes games or do you have a bit of a range of what that looks like?

Alex
Yeah, it’s a total range. Part of what we’ve done, we call it the ‘science of play at work’, because you don’t just pick a game randomly. You have to look very clearly at what’s the broader context of the learning or development that you’re trying to achieve. Whether it’s as simple as ‘we just want the people on the team to know each other better and like each other’, or ‘we want to implement a new tool and we want people to practice using it’, or ‘there’s going to be a change in leadership and we want to make sure that they can understand the culture’. You want to pick a game that has the right level of stakes for the situation that a team is in, and also that is going to address the right interpersonal dynamics that you’re trying to encourage or to correct.

Beth
How do you figure out which games you’re going to do with a group? So you probably have to talk a lot with the organization, figure out what’s going on. What does that look like, that preparation period, to be even able to pick the game?

Alex
There are two different lenses that we look through. One is, there’s an analogy that we use of an iceberg. There’s the part that’s above the waterline. There’s the part just below. Then there’s the deep base of it. And we look at those three different levels as the levels of depth that you can accomplish through games. So the part above the water, at the surface games are a shared experience, a way to have fun and learn about other people. They’re going to bring up stories. We call that team bonding. It’s just getting to know people in a different way and seeing them as whole people. It’s not necessarily going into deeper learning and development, but just that level of familiarity is essential for building trust and psychological safety and familiarity, to have that sense of shared commitment to each other, you know people that you’re working with.

If you pair that with the reflection of ‘how do different people show up? What can we learn about those differences and how can they be leveraged?’ We call that middle layer team building. You’re building stronger connections between the members of the team that directly translates to how they work together. So if I have been asking you the same question for years and never get the answer I want, and I realize, ‘oh you think differently. If I phrase the question in a different way, you’re going to have a better understanding of what I’m asking, and then we’ll work together better’. What are those little opportunities for interpersonal? So that’s team-building.

And then the deepest level is team development, and that’s where there’s more of a process change or culture transformation. The change that you’re trying to make or the outcome you’re trying to affect is related to the whole group, not just individuals. So that would be a different level of reflection and you’d obviously need more time to spend in the learning process of that.

The first lens is: which level of the iceberg are you trying to get to? And then the second one is we have what’s called our pressure matrix, where it’s nine different dimensions or characteristics of team culture. And we have an assessment that has statements like ‘I feel like I can be my authentic self at work’, or ‘I feel like we don’t have the right tools in place’, or ‘I have a clear understanding of what my colleagues are doing and how it relates to my role’.

So very basic level experiences of the day-to-day work and how – and from that it generates a score among the team of what are the strengths – which of these potential pressure points are areas of strength and which are pain points. And then we map games based on what are the mechanics within the game and what are the interpersonal dynamics that come from that game. We map games to which of those different pressure points can be explored.

If a group is really – if it’s a group of people where there’s some new people, they don’t really know each other really well, they don’t really have a sense of shared identity, we’ll say ‘great, we’re going to start with a team bonding session and we’re going to focus on the identity and belonging element of culture’. And so we would go into the game database and say, ‘what’s a good game for this piece?’ So we have those two different lenses for matching the right game for the right types of outcomes.

Beth
There’s that organizational brain of yours, I think, coming through, like you’ve really gotten this down to the science piece of, you know, you’re going to assess what’s going on, and then you’ve got suggestions around games that other facilitators – or when your company goes in – what you’re going to do (Um-hmm). I love that because, I mean, I get this all the time as well as a facilitator where people – the client will just say, ‘we just want people to get to know each other better. You know, we haven’t seen each other for a while because we’ve been online,’ or whatever they say. And you can take that so much further and dive into that and really tease it out and say, ‘well, how? How does the team need to work better together? How do individuals need to get to know themselves and others?’

Alex
Right. ‘What do you want to get to know each about each other?’ (Yeah!) Is it superficial stuff? Like just ‘what’s your favourite music, and what do you like to do on vacation?’ Or is it ‘how do you process new information?’ Or ‘where do you feel like your strengths can best be employed?’ What do you want to know about each other?

Beth
Yeah. And you said there are nine different aspects of that particular tool (Um-hmm). Yeah so there’s a lot more there than we might think if we were just starting to scratch the surface. There’s a lot underneath that kind of assessment.

Alex
Yeah, it amazes me that a lot of people still see culture as just how much do people like each other and they look forward to coming to work, and that’s really just a tiny piece of it. I see culture as: when you are doing your work, do you feel like your leaders, do you feel like the company as a whole, your department set you up to succeed and make it more likely that you’re going to succeed? Or does it throw hurdles and not remove them, and make your work more difficult and stressful? In order to think about that, do you have the right tools in place? Do you have the right people? Are people’s workloads appropriate to what their skillsets are? What’s reasonable? Are they fairly distributed across people? Do you understand what other people do? So you know who to go to to ask questions, and do you have the right mechanisms for communication? Like there’s so many things that go into what determines your experience at work and how well you succeed. It’s not just, ‘do you like the people?’

Beth
Yeah, you’re so right. I mean on the surface we might think we’re just playing a game here with this group. But I guess it’s that iceberg piece. There’s so much more going on under the surface around how people work and what they do and yeah, so it’s so much deeper than we might think at the top level.

Alex
And you can do a lot of harm if you bring an activity to a group and it’s the wrong level of difficulty, or the activity is going to introduce new conflict. That’s why so many people – you say, ‘hey we’re going to do a team activity’, and at least half the people will roll their eyes and be like ‘oh this is going to be so dumb and it doesn’t do anything. I could be spending my time better elsewhere’. And that’s because the experiences they’ve had haven’t been intentionally planned and curated. When you’re asking people to do an activity, you’re asking for their time, you’re asking for a certain level of vulnerability. Because you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. Maybe it’s a game you’ve never played before. So you have to justify why it’s worth it to people. And so if you’re just picking a random activity and forcing everybody to do it, you’re not making the case for why it’s important and what does success look like and what’s expected of people. Part of our science of play at work of having these frameworks is so you can also position the activity and make the case for: ‘hey, we know that this is a new team. You don’t know each other really well. We want to make sure that you have a really good understanding of what each other does and what strengths each of you brings. So we’re going to do this activity to explore that,’ and then you’ve given people a reason to trust you and to show that this is for a purpose. It’s not just chosen at random.

Beth
Yeah. You’re dealing with that ‘why’. Because I’ve seen – people have literally stuck up their hand in sessions with me – not too often, I feel like I can only think of one time where they really challenge you and they go, ‘why are we doing this?’ You know? So of course I know that means I didn’t do a very good job of explaining. But you get ahead of that because you’re dealing with this whole history of terrible games that people have been asked to play [laughs], I guess, for years. And so you get ahead of it and say, ‘here’s why we’re going to do this particular one’. Or do you ever just throw them into the game and see what happens or you do you always have this intention that you’re going to tell them why before you start? Like as you’re giving them instructions and facilitate them through?

Alex
It depends. There’s always some type of justification. Sometimes we’ll say, ‘we’re not going to tell you that much about the activity, but just here’s what to expect from it’. Because some of the most profound moments come from bringing out these insights that people had no idea they were going to have. But we don’t like to bring surprises and in most cases we tell people ‘you can engage as much or as little as you want. If you choose to observe, great’. But we give them some questions to think about so that it’s an active observation, because then they could still gain a lot from it. There are very few situations where we would totally throw people into the deep end without any context.

Beth
Yeah and I like that you’re giving them the element of choice. I mean, you’re saying ‘you can observe if you want to’, so there’s low risk happening there and chances are they’re going to join in right away.

Alex
But you want to introduce a level of accountability to say ‘it’s your choice to opt out. But then you have to think about how is that going to come across to your team? You know, might they think that you’re freeloading or they’re missing out on your perspective. Is there another way that you can engage?’ And so having people just look at a situation and notice that there’s different ways to add value, there’s different ways to be part of a team, that can be a really profound takeaway.

Beth
What can this do for a team? So you’re going to facilitate them through one or many intentional games that you’ve designed into your sessions, what have you seen the impact to be? Can you share any success stories?

Alex
Yeah. Oh, absolutely. I can think of a company that we worked with last year. We had five sessions with them over a series of three months, and it was with all of the team leads across the department. There were eight different teams. They had been very siloed previously, and there was some tension between the different teams and a lot of territorial, ‘we can’t share information because we don’t know what you’ll do with it’. The director wanted to create a much more shared sense of accountability and responsibility and have resources and information be shared and leveraged across the organization.

So the first few games were, ‘let’s understand what the different teams are doing and what are the things they have in common’. And, you know, people sharing what they were passionate about or what they thought were most rewarding in their work and using games to showcase what some of the different perspectives were. And so at the end of that, at the end of those games, it was like, ‘oh OK I understand these people a little better. I see that we all have similar values and we’re all bought into the same thing. I don’t mistrust them anymore’.

The next session we did some games that were looking at the different types of expertise, the different ways that people problem-solve, the different ways that people want expectations and instructions to be communicated. Then you could be more mindful – at the end of that, it was: ‘oh wow I’m realizing when I’m asking this question or when I am sending information over, I’m not providing enough context, so it just seems like I’m adding work to them rather than why it’s important that I need this information’. So they could rethink their communications with each other, how they were wording things, how they were responding. At the end of that they’re so excited to think of ‘oh my gosh, what could we do differently? How do we apply these insights?’ Making people excited about possibilities for improvement and hope is massive, in realizing that some of these daily frustrations are not inevitable and they’re not insurmountable.

Then after that we did some games that were exploring how can they actually work together? What does collaboration look like? And what happens when one person trusts another person to bring their expertise to the table rather than trying to do it all yourself?

And at the end of that not only did they feel like they could depend on each other across departments but they also had a better sense of how do they create that sense of collaboration within their own teams and units. So again, excited about ideas for how to apply that.

We just kept going a little bit deeper and the biggest outcome is that people are excited and committed to the idea of making a change, first in their own behaviour and then in how they relate to each other.

Beth
They sound like great sessions. I mean those are great sessions to facilitate when you can really see and feel that palpable excitement, hope for the future, new ways of working together. That’s really wonderful.

Alex
Yeah, it’s so much fun. I can’t think of a session that I’ve facilitated where there hasn’t been some really big a-ha moment that got people motivated for change and transformation.

Beth
What does the reflective part look like for you? Like, when I talked to Romy Alexandra, you mentioned the other episode that was her episode, the experiential learning cycle we talked about and she was very clear, too, that we have to have that reflective or reflection piece in the cycle. So what is it? Is it verbal for you? Written? Do you do the same thing every time? Like how do you integrate that piece so that they do learn and grow from being in the game?

Alex
Yeah. A lot of times we have to start by almost teaching people how to be reflective or reminding them to be reflective. Because in the modern workplace, there’s so little time allowed for that. And that’s what, you know, people have an emotional reaction to something and then they just react. So like if we have a conversation and you say something that I misinterpret and I’m cranky, well now I’m not going to be particularly generous with my time in working with you, and I’ll probably be cranky to the next conversation. And so you have to help people – like, ‘what are the emotions that you’re feeling?’ Or ‘what are the thoughts that you’re having in a situation and why are you having them?’ That’s the first level – we’re so used to looking for objective and quantifiable data, but there’s really valuable data to be harvested from your subjective experiences and then talk about that.

So we’ll play a game and say, ‘how was that? What were you thinking? What were you feeling? What did you notice?’ And people are a little bit reluctant sometimes at first because they don’t quite know how to answer it. Then someone will say, ‘oh I thought it was really fun’. And somebody will say, ‘I didn’t think it was fun. I didn’t like that it was really competitive’. And someone else will say, ‘you know what I noticed is I wasn’t really sure of the instruction, so I don’t feel like I fully participated until a couple rounds in’.

Then you’re starting to get – you can pull those threads. ‘Great. You thought it was too competitive. What would’ve been better for you? What could’ve made it better for you?’ Or ‘what questions do you have for people who thought it was really fun? What would you like to understand about how they experienced it?’ So you’re just trying to get some of those observations to bubble up to the surface and show them how to pull those threads.

Beth
So am I hearing correctly, you don’t just debrief the game, you use a game to debrief the game in that – is that what you’re saying? That you have reflective games, as well, that you layer in?

Alex
No, not necessarily reflective games, but essentially the whole purpose of the game, at least the first game is to show people how to reflect on a situation and to get them open to that. And so then the first level of questions is – if you go back to the iceberg, the team bonding, team-building, and team development – with team bonding, it’s like, ‘what’d you think? Did you have fun? Did you like that game? What are you going to remember about it?’ And you stop there.

With team bonding, it’s – ‘for you individually, how are you feeling and what did you notice and what could have made it more fun for you?’ And then a few people share their insights and start to realize that everybody’s had – even though they did the exact same thing for five minutes or for an hour – they had very different internal experiences. So talking about those. And then ‘what are patterns that you can see in your own behaviour, when do these types of feelings come up at work and how do you handle it? And how might you be able to handle it better? And how can other people help you in handling it? And how can you understand each other better?’ So then there’s that level of what are the individual needs and how can you lean on each other. And that’s in the team-building, that middle level.

And then the base level is ‘OK, as a group working together, what tools do you need, or what level of understanding about what certain language means, or about roles and responsibilities, do you all need to have to feel confident in how you can perform together and how you can work together?’ There’s different levels of questions based on the outcomes we’re trying to get to.

Beth
That’s great. And I’m just going to say it again for all of us. So bond, build, and develop, that’s the top to bottom of that iceberg above and below the water, depth of levels of play that you’re talking about. (Yeah) Yeah. And then the different reflective questions accordingly. Yeah, that’s really nice. And so do you do a lot of it in the group, like verbally? Or do you give them silent reflection time and free writing or journal or – is that part of it as well?

Alex
Yeah, a combination of both. Yeah. And be very aware that people process information very differently. Some people can talk about things right away and some people need that time to think and listen and then engage.

Beth
What do you think is the biggest challenge for those of us who don’t work inside your company but we’re kind of looking at what you do and we go, ‘OK, we’re facilitators, we want some of that for ourselves’. What’s the biggest hurdle that we might have to get over for ourselves as facilitators, or maybe with our clients, to be able to integrate more game-based experiential learning in our work?

Alex
There still are, sadly, a lot of people that have the idea ‘well, play and work can’t possibly exist in the same sentence’. That’s a question that we get a lot. Part of what we do is we certify other facilitators in our whole approach that they can bring games into their work. Part of that is sometimes you don’t call it a game. What can you call it? How can you position it? ‘We’re going to do this learning exercise’. And that’s where having our pressure matrix where you can tie it to the different aspects of culture and outcomes is really useful. ‘Because we’re going to do an activity that’s going to help better understand how we can use different tools, explore tools and capacity’. It’s very outcome driven. That’s one of the big challenges.

Another is a lot of the skills that lend themselves to being a good facilitator or a good coach are the same skills that are successful in game facilitation, but it’s just getting confident with what are the different stages of the game process. There’s picking the right game, there’s setting it up and introducing it, there’s giving the instructions and thinking about what information do you give. That’s a huge variable that you can play around with. You can give very clear instructions, and so everybody – you’re taking some uncertainty out of the situation – but a lot of time you want there to be a certain degree of uncertainty, because that’s where the interpersonal messiness is going to come out. So how do you understand and make that determination of what level of instruction you want to give. Then do you do a debrief? Do you wait till the end of the game to debrief? Do you do midway reflection so that there’s room for course correction? It’s really just understanding what are all of the stages of the game experience and all of the opportunities for the facilitator to shape that experience.

Beth
I can see that. It makes me think about a game that I played many, many years ago. I did a certificate in intercultural studies many moons ago, and are you familiar with the game called Barnga? (Yes.) Do you know that one?

Alex
I haven’t played it, but I’ve heard of it.

Beth
It’s been, it’s been ages and it’s probably still out there, but Barnga, it’s one of those games where you can’t say too much about what the point is and you experience the game and maybe you figure it out as you go along. I did not. I will fully admit I didn’t know what was going on in the game until the debrief after. And it hits you like a ton of bricks and in intercultural studies, I was kind of chagrined like, ‘oh my gosh,’ you know. I won’t say too much because people might not have played the game yet, but it’s the realization, the a-ha moment that you want the participant to have to go, ‘oh that’s what was going on. Oh what was I doing in that game that caused that? Or whatever’. Right? Like, we can’t say too much when we’re facilitating that kind of thing, can we? They just have to play it. (Yeah). And see what happens. Yeah. It was so powerful.

Alex
You just start to get a feel of ‘how much do I share, what’s right for this situation?’ Part of it is knowing the group. You know, if you’re working with a group of accountants, they’re probably going to need a lot more specific instructions. And if you’re working with more creatives that are like, ‘we’ll just make assumptions to fill in the empty space’, and that’s fine.

Beth
Yeah. Other facilitators are like, ‘we’ll just go with whatever you say, just put us into it’. [laughs]. (Yeah.) Yeah. A lot of people ask me, ‘where do you find activities? Where do you find these kinds of games?’ So what advice do you give to people about how to find games? Maybe how to analyze them for these levels that you’re talking about? Any advice there?

Alex
So that’s one of the big things that we’re trying to provide. We have a database of games – some we’ve created, but a lot that are just out there in the public, and we’ll test them with the mindset of – this is where my partner who’s a game designer has such a deep area of expertise – is ‘what are the mechanics within a game?’ And so our database for each game there’s probably 30 different game mechanics. Is there a strategy component? Is there a bluffing component? Is there a drawing component? Is there a chance, an element of chance?

What are the different aspects of the game? And then what are the interpersonal dynamics that happen within the game? That’s another 30 or so characteristics. So when we’re playing it and testing it, we’re saying ‘which of these are included and is it enough that it can be valuable?’ Because that’s the thing. If you just search online and type in ‘team activities’, like anything else on the internet, a lot of what you’re going to find is garbage. A lot of it is going to be sponsored, so it’s not objective. Some of it is good, some of it is not. And so we’re trying to become a reliable source – for these at least have been vetted in a thoughtful way and in the instructions that we have. We don’t just have the game, we have the how do you facilitate it. It helps you figure out how to mine that game for the experience that you’re trying to create.

Beth
Yeah and you were talking about ‘why’, you know, ‘why are you choosing that particular game?’ You’re tying it to outcomes or objectives, and so that’s what we have to be looking for, don’t we? I mean, we have to know why we’ve picked a certain thing and what it’s going to do for our overall objective for the group. Yeah. (Um-hmm) Yeah that intentionality is great.

Alex
And what we’ve found is – I know that’s certainly been the case for my practice, but others too – you know there are hundreds of games out there but you might have 5 or 10 that you regularly go to, and sometimes you’ll look for another one to introduce. But each facilitator is going to feel more comfortable or feel like certain games better resonate with their audience or with the outcomes that they’re trying to get to.

Beth
How do you keep learning in your field? You mentioned playing new games together. I assume you do that with your kind of emerging – and you’ve got a pretty big team of facilitators it looks like. I was checking you out on your website. So do you do other things to keep up in the field and keep learning new games, practicing – where do you turn to to keep your own learning going?

Alex
My partner, Peter, is the one who’s always looking at new games and playing them. And then when something seems interesting to him, he’ll bring it and we’ll play it internally, with either just my co-founders – we also, for the people who’ve gone through our certification, we have regular game salons that anybody from any cohort can come to. And sometimes we’re testing a new game together and getting feedback. Sometimes people just want to practice facilitating a game and what works and what doesn’t work. But we just play it with people and say, ‘is this valuable? What are some spins that you can put on it? How does it map to the different elements of culture?’.

Every time we have – you know beyond our regular stand-up meetings, but a longer meeting – we always play some type of game. Just part of our culture.

Beth
Yeah. You’re evolving the games that you use and play. Like, over time, you’re probably going back and re-looking at ones you’ve used in the past and keep tweaking them for the future, hey? (Um-hmm). It sounds like wonderful work. Do you expect you’ll be in this field for quite some time? It’s giving you a lot of juice in your work? [smiles]

Alex
I hope so. I think that there’s so much in the broad learning and development field that is just ripe for an update. It amazes me how much time and money is still going to: everybody sits and somebody lectures at them, and then you’re told you have to change your behaviour based on that knowledge. And that’s just not how people learn. That’s not how you motivate growth. So I hope that there becomes more of an appetite for more creative and experiential learning and games. So we’re going to try as hard as we can to get this out there. And I hope we’re around for a while. I know that I’ll constantly be incorporating it into my own practice in some form or another.

Beth
Me too. I mean, so many of us that are like-minded in our field – whether we’re facilitating meetings or facilitating learning – I don’t know, sometimes it does feel like we’re pushing a ball uphill a little bit in terms of convincing people to do something interactive, to do something meaningful [laughs], and not just lecture at folks! So we all still have jobs, don’t we? And we will for a while. But at least there are these things that we can turn to. You have such expertise in this field, and it sounds like you’re creating some great tools that we can all draw on as well. Tools and a community as well, don’t you?

Alex
Yeah. We really, we see the community that we’re building as a community of practice to just expand the field of game-based experiential learning, and to be trying new things and finding new applications and connecting it to other tools and contents that’s out there. I don’t think that games can replace any other type of learning tool. I see them as a compliment in a way to help operationalize and internalize the learning and the takeaways. So as long as there are people that are willing to – that are looking for how can you improve the outcomes and the value that you’re getting for what you’re investing in learning, then we should be well-positioned.

Beth
Yeah. Keep going. And you said it’s value. There’s huge value in facilitating group meetings and group learning this way and let’s keep on going. All of us (um-hmm) in trying to do it well for groups and with them (um-hmm). Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing about your work and your passion for your field. It’s been nice to have a little bit more of a window into your world and get to know you a little bit better. And thanks for doing what you do.

Alex
Oh you’re welcome. It was such a great conversation. I think we probably could have kept going for a lot longer. Maybe another time we could play a game, and talk about a game as we’re playing it and show what that looks like.

Beth
Oh that sounds like fun. We’ll get a couple other people to come on and do a new episode sometime. I’d love that.

Alex
That’d be really fun.

Beth
Thanks Alex.

Alex
Thank you so much.

[Episode outro]
Beth Cougler Blom
I really enjoyed my conversation with Alex and a couple of things are still resonating with me. One of the things is that we can so often – or maybe our clients can so often – discount play and using games in our meetings and our learning events. But it’s our job – one of them, one of the jobs as facilitators – to help clients realize that play can be so powerful for people and their organizations. And Alex told us a lot of the reasons why. So it’s not just playing a game for the game’s sake, but we should always be choosing games intentionally, trying to figure out what the outcomes are that the group wants and needs, how they want to be expanding and elevating their work and their communication and their collaboration together. And games just fall into that process and it is an intentional process.

So that second piece is just me remembering – and I talk about it all the time I think, don’t I? – that intentionality of what we need to do with the group for their own purposes and how we’re going to get them there. And choosing those activities, those games, those exercises with intention. So the more we, as facilitators and designers of learning, are very, very clear about why we want to put a particular game into our lesson plans for our meetings or our learning events then we can say to the participants or say to the clients, ‘this is why this is here’. And she just reminded me of that very important piece that if we don’t know why we’re putting something into an agenda, we can’t really go back and tell the client or tell the participants why either. That should be very illuminating for all of us to keep choosing activities and games with intention for the things that we do. So I really want to thank Alex for coming and expanding my learning around using games. And I can’t wait to try out some of the ones that they have on their website. So go off to barometerxp.com and find what they have to offer. And I hope you benefit from that.

In the next episode of the podcast, you’re going to have a solo episode from me and it’s going to be all about perfecting timing when we’re putting together and designing our workshops or our courses and facilitating them as well. Timing is an issue that comes up a lot with my clients in our conversations, particularly, of course, around synchronous events that we’re doing in person or virtually in platforms like Zoom. So I’m going to be going through a bunch of the considerations and the things I think about around timing, which hopefully will be helpful for you as well. So join me next time on the show for Perfecting Timing. I’ll see you then.

[Show outro]
Beth
Thank you for listening to Facilitating on Purpose. If you were inspired by something in this episode, please share it with a friend or a colleague to help them expand their facilitation practice too. To find the show notes, give me feedback, or submit ideas for future episodes visit facilitatingonpurpose.com. Special thanks to Mary Chan at Organized Sound Productions for producing this episode. Happy facilitating!

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