Everything I Know About Managing I Learned Playing Video Games
OK, while I’m not being completely truthful in my title—I actually invested three decades in learning to grow businesses and lead teams for global technology firms—a case can be made for the parallels between mastering a video game and developing as a manager in today’s world.
Now that you’ve stopped chuckling, let’s look at the evidence.
Welcome to a World of VUCA:
There’s a trendy but true acronym drawn from the military that characterizes the world of business today: VUCA.
This term stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Throw in “O” for overload and you have a fair set of descriptors for the environment that most managers and leaders find themselves attempting to navigate.
Game designers build in all of those VUCA or VOUCA characteristics as a means of engaging players and testing their mettle. The goals in many games are clear however, the challenges you will encounter during your journey from start to level-up to mastery are unknown, much like our world of change and uncertainty today.
Promoting Employee Engagement is an Issue:
Promoting engagement across the team and firm has proven to be a notoriously difficult challenge in most workplaces as evidenced by the annual Gallup numbers suggesting that more than 60% of employees in firms surveyed are either not engaged or actively disengaged.
In contrast, the most effective console and online role playing games are remarkable examples of environments promoting active engagement.
Game designers have effectively tapped into the leading research on human motivation and behavioral economics to push the buttons that make us want to work, strive, fail, learn, experiment and even collaborate in pursuit of our goals. And they promote engagement over hundreds of thousands and even millions of individuals.
Given the Gallup statistics, it seems as if the game designers have some relevant lessons for managers everywhere.
Career Development and Leveling Up:
Effective career development takes place by exposing individuals to increasingly difficult and different experiences, challenging them to learn, problem-solve, adapt and even fail on the road to learning. As we grow as managers and senior leaders, the challenges become increasingly complex and ambiguous. Contrast the first-line supervisor’s issues of managing her team to deliver service to a group of customers with that of the CEO who must pick a direction for the company and decide which key investments or acquisitions to pursue. The level of complexity and ambiguity grows as you gain responsibility.
Every gamer who has spent any amount of time with a controller in hand would recognize the process of career development as described above as one of leveling up. As you navigate the different levels gaining knowledge, health, valuable skills and tools and cachet as someone who has earned her level, the problems become bigger and more ambiguous. You not only draw upon what you’ve learned in the past, but you are required to think differently and cultivate new skills and to test new ideas and approaches, often in situations where your virtual life is dependent upon getting it right.
Effective managers treat their employee development just like a level-up situation.
Solving Problems Made Easy(ier):
The world of work today is a world of teams in pursuit of projects. Teams implement and execute on strategy. They install new software systems and production lines. And in spite of the myth of the lone creative genius, most innovation takes place in teams. These teams are often temporary and unique—pulled together for a particular purpose—and then disbanded when that purpose has been fulfilled. In today’s world of work, it’s common for team members to never even meet as they collaborate across continents.
Many games include collaboration components where you are thrown together with complete strangers from different cultures and all with different skills and abilities, to solve problems or beat the bad guys.
And in a real world example of the power of games, a group of gamers on Foldit solved a research problem that had stumped scientists for over a decade. They solved the problem in three weeks. It's time to figure out how to harness the power of true collaboration in our workplaces.
3 Big Management Lessons You Can Learn from Video Games:
- Engagement is essential. You must capture the minds and hearts of your team members. Focus on building a safe working environment where people are encouraged to experiment and when experiments fail, they are applauded for learning and improving in the next round. Show respect, show that you care for your team members as individuals. Encourage and reward collaboration. Celebrate great outcomes and protect your team from outside distractions.
- Treat the professional development of your team members like a series of level-up situations. Challenge them with increasingly difficult tasks and support their efforts to execute the tasks. Offer near real-time feedback and coaching, and where needed, training. Again, celebrate successes and leverage failures as learning opportunities. Rinse and repeat.
- Leverage the power of the group just like the Foldit scenario described above. While you don’t have the benefit of untold masses, you can focus the team’s collective efforts on the sticky challenges or fast-rising opportunities. Provide coaching to support team development, effective dialog and creative problem-solving. Reward the team for their collective efforts and great outcomes.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
Most of our management approaches were defined in earlier eras by consultants and executives now long gone or long in the tooth. The world of video games was born of digital DNA during the past few decades. It’s a credit to the game designers that they leveraged great practices in motivation to create engagement. Along they way, they may have just stumbled upon some of the tools we need to lead our times in an era characterized by volatility, uncertainty, overload, ambiguity and change. The next time someone gives you grief for excessive gaming time, just tell them you’re working on your management skills!