Rini Das, CEO, PAKRA

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Use Bio-Mimicry designs to build high-performing teams and use Games to reinforce the right behaviors. Conversation with Ken Thompson, Bioteaming and Change Management expert

As a consummate change-maker and a Games-based learning pioneer, Ken Thompson writes, speaks and deploys Games to teach corporate teams, the consequences of their decisions and help them manage change in business processes. He is the managing director of BioTeams Design and Swarm Teams.

RD:> Are you a gamer?

KT:> My kids are fanatical gamers. They humiliate me all the time, when I play with them. In fact they no longer include me even when they play Xbox soccer. So! I would not describe myself a gamer.

RD:> How did you get into Games and stuff like that?

KT:> I am a social mathematician. My educational background is in mathematics. Then I worked for more than thirty years in change management. I wrote books about teams, social networks and change management. I gave a TedX talk about high-performing teams.

Over  two decades, as a hobby, I have been building these models, simulations and games. In the last five years or so, my clients started asking me to commercialize these simulations and games.

Some are pure simulations. For example, I have a simulation that optimizes how one organizes a sales process; another is about determining ROI from social campaigns.

Many are games and are based on immersive-learning principles. Most of these games are paper and pencil and role-based games, i.e. hybrid or blended learning game. Typically, a game runs for a full day with a leadership team.

RD:> I completely relate. We did those for twenty years prior to starting PAKRA.

KT:> Yes! In these games, I add:

(1) Realistic and relatable constructs i.e. stories with artifacts.

(2) Then there are, what I call, “golden rules”. By “golden rules” I mean: You should “Always do this” or You should “Never do that”.

(3) Basic resource constraints.

(4) Dilemmas and conflicts. Dilemmas, such as, “I want six pack abs” and “I love chocolates”.

(5) There are, of course, roles and metrics.

(6) The component of social learning where I facilitate in-person or online.

They typically play these games for 3 rounds. The first round is to normalize the mechanics and at the end, the players will be supremely confident. Then in the second round, the unexpected happens; for example, the suppliers increase prices, the market demand collapses, competitors eat their lunch, Euro spins out of control etc.  In the third round, the innovation happens. Almost all participants find these blended experiential learning as the best way to learn.


RD:> What game-design principles do you use? Your blog provides the details, but for the purposes of this interview, can you give a list of the key components?

KT:> These are listed on my blog. The big ones are:

(1) Goals

(2) Leading and lagging metrics for feedback loop

(3) Roles

(4) A sense of the unexpected

(5) Golden Rules

RD:> What learning principles do you use in your design?

KT:> I have a Private Pilots License with IMC and Micro-lite ratings. In aviation, as you know, 90% of crashes are due to pilot errors. In the old days, you went out then tried a spin. It was felt that more people were killed in training to handle spins than would have happened if nobody was trained on spins and just took their chances. Now, many can do effortlessly because they practice zillion times on a flight simulator.

I use learning principles where I:

(1) Calibrate the business or the process or the goals.

(2) Create a sandbox where learner learns to do know harm but understands the consequences of your action.

(3) Create a safe environment where the learner can fail repeatedly and learn on their own.

(4) Design and validate the level of engagement.

RD:> With bioteams, you seem to be promoting the idea of "collective intelligence" in the world of change management? Is that a correct perception? Tell us what it is and why?

KT:> It started with my work with software development teams. I was very dissatisfied with how they were producing. They were generally not on time. If they were on time, they were not on budget. I talked to lots of people and found that they shared the same dissatisfaction. We found that a single-leader command and control team was very faulty. It is about crossing the line. Before the line is crossed, the team just did what they thought right and naturally collaborated. When the team leader publicly bawls a team member out, the line is crossed, the team members get into an avoidance and self-preservation mode. A team member typically says to self, “it will never happen to me as I will make sure I don’t get the blame.” The question, I then had was “How do we change a dysfunctional team to a high-performing team?” The answer came from a topic called bio-mimicry. Many engineers are practitioners of bio-mimicry.  You have heard how Velcro was discovered while the man was walking his dog.

In contrast, I am one of those in minority, where I am not using nature as a muse for building things. But, I use  “Organizational bio-mimicry” practices to teaching influencig skills to teams. If you look at the Canadian snow-geese and their flight pattern, then you want to see how rotational leadership can be applied to teams.

I wrote this book titled "Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Nature's Most Successful Designs" about collective leadership, small messaging and experimentation within high-performing teams. All the practices came out of nature.

Then I wrote a book called The Networked Enterprise (TNE) - competing for the future through Virtual Enterprise Networks (VENs) about small businesses leveraging a networked world and collaborating together and getting the scale and same benefits of a large enterprise without losing the velocity and cost leverage of small business.

RD:> What are you currently working on?

KT:> Mainly, I am building and iterating a framework that is generic enough where I can put scenario into the framework and repurpose any game very quickly.

I recently designed a game about change management called Cohort. It teaches basic change management skills. The objective is to change the mind of 10 executives. It has an agent-based model. A player can change the mind of a senior executive, who can take it forward but there are risks with it. A player can change the mind of a key influencer, who has reputation to influence the minds of his or her social network. Change-management consultants are using this to run their workshops.

Another game is B2C game about pricing. Also is a B2B sales game.

Also I am working on a 3-game bundle about, what I call, Collaboration trilogy skills for a manager: First game addresses, “How to build a network?” Second game addresses, “How to message effectively in it ?" teaches principles social network analysis. Third game teaches "How to and when to use indirect or direct actions towards a goal?"

RD:> Here, too I relate very well. You are involved with leadership and strategic games, whereas we are involved much more in tactical and skills-acquiring games. Building a framework is absolutely an important business model for us.

KT:> You do have an advantage in what you are doing, because you are able to link the learning to actual work-performance, whereas when it comes to market strategies and leadership training, it is harder to tie the learning to actual results as the effects are seen much downstream and much later.

RD:> One last question: in your "About profile" you mention that you came back to Belfast to "make a difference to East Belfast first" -- Why and How are you achieving that?

KT:> As you perhaps know, East Belfast was the home of ship-building and culturally the people are used to big employers. But the big employers have long left, and years of civil-strife have created an underprivileged class that is dependent on the government. The government, in turn, created a class of serial grant-preneuers, which is not sustainable for the economy. There is a need for sustaining start-up businesses that leads to less migration of talent. As a starter, by being here, by living here and by participating here, I am hoping to make that difference.

RD:> Ken, Thank you so much for the fabulous chat today. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

KT:> I enjoyed it too. Given we seemingly led parallel lives to a large extent, we should definitely look out for opportunities to collaborate.


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