Gamifying Strategy: The important role of the non-playing character


An organisation’s ability to survive and thrive in the new world of work is largely dependent on its agility and adaptability. This means learning, working, and evolving together. As an organisation, Insights recently came to the end of a hugely successful five-year strategic period. Now, we’re embarking on a new era where we will create and deploy our strategies on a rolling basis because we believe this is the key to greater outcomes, innovation, and agility.

With this in mind, we wanted to be bold at our recent Global Leadership Meeting. We wanted our leaders to be playful with their learning and leave the three-day event with an intimate personal knowledge of the strategy. So, we used gamification to create a three-day ambitious immersive gaming experience that lasted from the moment they arrived, until the moment they left.

We also used ‘Purpose Points’, not PowerPoints. At Insights, we lead with our Purpose : ‘To create a world where people truly understand themselves and others and are inspired to make a positive difference in everything they do’. ‘Purpose Points’ were the game’s rewards for demonstrating specific leadership behaviours, which we believe will be vital in delivering our new learning mindset strategy renewal process, which translated to money for eight local charities we worked with that week. We decided we wanted no presentations and certainly no speakers on the stage. A casual observer would have seen 60 senior leaders in brightly coloured hoodies frantically building craft models of our strategy, solving riddles, piecing together clues in cross-functional teams and using digital tools to accelerate their learning. They would have observed these leaders rushing to secret locations in the playground of Belfast meeting mystery guests – including customers and stakeholders, gathering strategy artefacts, and competing for points. This was the idea that the best strategies are ones which are passionately understood by the operational teams who are required to deliver them and the best way to embed behavioural change is through experiences! And we know that gamification and fun can enable learning and behavioural shifts. And learning to learn together, adapt and respond together helps us build agile strategies and an adaptive culture where we achieve better outcomes, together, faster. 

Non-player characters

As the leaders played, my executive leadership team and I took on the persona of non-playing characters. We could have chosen to instruct around the new strategy, become involved in the games, stood up on a stage and influence outcomes. It was important to the process, and important to me that we didn’t – we stood back, observed, guided and encouraged, but didn’t tell. 

Now, that doesn’t mean we did nothing. In fact, the non-playing character is one of the hardest roles to do well – especially when you have what Insights calls a strong “fiery red” extroverted thinking preference. We resisted the temptation to find solutions or overtly influence but allowed the team to demonstrate their capabilities.

Having recently played this role in this leadership learning event, I believe there are invaluable concepts here for all leaders can access in their day-to-day work if they allow themselves to be ‘non-playing characters’ for their own teams.

Embedding strategy

In the new world of work, for a strategy to be successful, business leaders must create opportunities for their people to feel and experience strategy. At Insights we adopted the Scottish saying “felt not telt.” Mimicking a ‘non-playing character’, a leader must develop the environment, host the “game”, and allow employees to experience and ‘feel’ the strategy. When employees become involved in this grassroots way, they’re empowered to interrogate, understand and encouraged to share strategy passionately with others – they’re not dependent on somebody else knowing the strategy and trying to explain it to them. 

Driving innovation

As part of the gamification process, it was up to the individuals to source their own answers – regardless of what those might be. It could be different from what they expected, but it created a richness to the whole process. And that’s actually where our Executive leadership team decided to focus the behavioural shift. 

In stepping back as a leader, you take on more of a mentoring, Sherpa-type role rather than simply providing answers. In our case, this created alchemy – an incredible ball of energy and innovation that I had never experienced before. This magic spilled over from official day events to informal evening events – deepening the bond among the leaders.

Driving leadership behaviours in everyone

Prior to the event, our learning function identified four leadership behaviours that we believed will support the delivery of our new agile ways of working and deploy our strategies faster and more effectively. We used colourful tokens, ‘Purpose Points’ to reward where we observed these behaviours. The colours represented – prioritisation (a blue token), openness (a green token), collaboration (a yellow token) and purposefulness (a red token). The colours are linked to our flagship people development solution, Insights Discovery. Whenever we saw someone demonstrating one of these behaviours, we recognised it with the corresponding ‘Purpose Points’. This spirit of competition really took off – individuals competing to be more collaborative was particularly quite inspiring!

There’s something about observing and authentically rewarding people in this way that helps to embed the desired behaviours and inspire self-reflection. It is all too easy as a leader to give vague, empty praise. However, holding yourself in the position of a ‘non-playing character’ created that space to give meaningful feedback which inspires and encourages.

Developing awareness

There were times when it was hard to stand back and watch teams grappling with puzzles, problems and challenges in the games. As in any organisation, there were also moments of tension, when the solutions weren’t coming as quickly as people might have liked. However, it certainly helped us as leaders to allow others to develop their own solutions and abilities, in a way that was unique to them. It helped me challenge myself and pull myself back, at the times I was most tempted to step in to help find the answers.

Final takeaways

Being a ‘non-playing character’ at the most important leadership event for our organisation was a big gamble. But the themes and behaviours that emerged were beyond our expectations. It’s why I believe that this concept of a non-playing character can benefit any leader. And creating and deploying strategy, through gamification, learning and behavioural change can hugely benefit organisations by engaging the biggest asset we have – our people. 

By fashioning a creative environment where innovative and diverse thinking is welcomed, and with leaders creating space, encouraging, and guiding, you can unleash the skills, knowledge and brilliance of your people, as they step up to feel, own and champion strategy. 

You can guide them to piece together the strategic jigsaw themselves so that they help to develop and truly understand what the final picture looks like. A shared and aligned understanding of strategy is worth ten times more than the perfect strategy that only the executive understands, and through these new ways of working, trialling, testing and learning as we go, we hope to continue to achieve great things at Insights – together.

The next step for us at Insights is to see if we can roll out this non-playing character concept within the next layer of leadership and be as successful in embedding strategic focus and organisational behaviour. 

Written by Fiona Logan.

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