Whenever we talk of business transformation, process improvement or collaboration, it never takes long before the talk turns to the issues of overcoming the barriers to change or how to get greater buy-in from those who will be affected by the new ways of working. These challenges, it would appear, are universal. Of course as regular readers will know, our stock answer is always “then get those people actively involved in the process!”
It’s not only in business where the issue of getting people actively involved is an issue; the same is true in politics too. All over the democratic world governments, both national and local, struggle with this. How to get people to buy in to spending cuts or agree to increase taxes are universal government challenges and ones for which many people suggest there is no simple answer. Except—it turns out the answer is the same: get people actively involved in the process!
Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be invited to be invited to help facilitate some 'Budget Games' at the City of San Jose in California. So on a bright sunny morning in San Jose I found myself surrounded by 250 representatives of the local community. Neighbourhood leaders, community leaders, youth leaders and representatives of churches and societies, all coming together with just one aim—to help the City of San Jose plan next year’s budget.
The games were devised and created by Innovation Games of Mountain View California, and delivered through its non-profit foundation Every Voice Engaged—which aims to help not just to simply put the power in the hands of the people, but to help actively engage them in making the decisions that will shape the lives and their families and the communities they live in.
The Budget Game is based on a commercial game sold by Innovation Games called Buy a Feature, in which users are invited to assist product managers and markers work out the real priorities for the features required in a project or product.
Budget Games are played by tables of 10 players, each with a facilitator and observer and a team of community representatives. Each player is given a sum of money (just like Monopoly) and a list of things they can buy—options included measures for gang-prevention, additional police officers, mending more roads, community centres and additional services for the less fortunate. No one player has enough money to buy any one service and so they have to debate and negotiate in order to get others to agree to pool resources in order to purchase services. However, just as in life, players quickly identified that they did not have enough money to do the things they wanted. This is where the game becomes interesting, because players are also given options to increase revenue—options included raising the city sales tax, reducing overtime payments for City managers, paying additional property taxes, reducing the number of personnel on fire trucks and charging a business levy. One of the rules of the game is that although players can spend their money individually, in order to increase revenues all players have to be unanimous in their decision. If they agree to the revenue raising, then the money raised is divided equally among the players to once again spend as they wish.
The game ran for around 3 hours and it was both a fascination and a privilege to listen to the debates and discussion around the table, as these people considered what was best for their community. It was equally impressive to watch how people changed their perceptions based upon new inputs from other players. Just as in business, the game players have access to subject matter experts with the police chief, fire chief and city managers all on hand to answer technical questions about their services. At the end of the game we had some great discussion among different tables and noted there was a lot of consensus and similarity.
So far it probably just sounds like another talking shop or fancy focus group, but what makes these games different is that the results are not just actionable but actioned! This is the third year that the City of San Jose has used the games as part of its budget process. Indeed, last year over 80% of the budget proposed by the Mayor to the City was based upon recommendations that came as a direct result of the games. In this video interview, you can listen to city manager Kip Harkness talking about the City’s successes with the games.
So if Budget Games are successfully addressing some of the thorniest issues on the planet, then it seems using games to address issues of non-engagement and barriers to change in business should be no brainer.
[Editor's note: Mark travelled to San Jose at his own expense and provided his time free of charge to assist with the games. Mark is one of only a handful of people around the world authorised to facilitate and train in the use and application of Innovation Games.]