Value-based Leadership: Game Tool as a Bridge Maker

By Sune Gudiksen & Leif Sørensen


Embracement & Incorporation Of Organizational Values

In organizations, a strategy for employee alignment is to define a set of “official” company values to follow in the whole organization, both to support the internal work environment and as a branding issue in customer interactions. The main problem, especially for the top management in larger companies, but also in specific interactions with customers, is to create an awareness of these values that leads to their employee embracement and incorporation in everyday work situations and customer interactions.

Conversely, employees have difficulties in explaining to the top management why, in certain situations, it might be challenging to live by these values due to the fact that they stumble upon practical dilemmas that are somewhat invisible to the proximally, distant top management. This research aims to investigate in what way game tools might support the embracement and incorporation of “official” values?


Current Understanding Of Organizational Values

According to Sullivan et al. (2001), clarifying values can be a beneficial endeavour for both the individual employee, as they can be heard and find the values meaningful, and for management, who will be able to develop a unified organizational workforce. Values can become principles by which organizational actors live and perform. It is also indicated in some studies that values-led companies if managed successfully, can outperform others (Dearlove & Coomber 1999). Using values in organizational leadership work is founded on the conversation of actions and decisions.

Through dialogue, any leadership action can be measured against the values as a “wall of qualification” for the action in relation to the specific value. However, Swales and Rogers conducted a study in 1995 showing that a set of official values had no real significance or relevance for organizational participants and stakeholders—they were regarded as cosmetic. An exemplified official value from a consultancy company: “We want to bring joy for learning to your everyday working life.” By using the value statement as the wall of qualification in the design phase of any program, the proposition from corporate management is that any action must be within the frame of bringing joy for learning to everyday working life.

While Swales and Rogers’ study paints a rather bleak picture, Sullivan et al. (2001) present us with a different study in which values were successfully adopted by organizational actors through a series of workshops. They state that employees must be presented with value by such activities as “discussing, challenging, influencing, fleshing out and questioning the values.” However, it is less clear in the study how and by which format this could be done.

In today’s organizations, a tendency can be observed of employees seeming to be more focused on meaningfulness and job fulfilment. Further, “when there is alignment between individual and organizational values, there is also a natural connection between people throughout the organization” (Branson 2008). It can also be a good place to start organizational initiatives because it creates incentives for individuals to reach a different consciousness about organizational matters (Branson 2008).

Years back, Jack Welch talked about the boundaryless organization, in which a series of structured and facilitated forums are systematically built into company activities (In Ashkenas et al. 2002). Here people are brought together across functions and decision-making levels. Even though communication technologies have given us access to a bigger portion of information than we could ever have imagined, it seems to go in the other direction with increasingly more complex organizational structures, which means that the need for these types of structured forums continues to exist and is perhaps more crucial today.

We have experienced many meetings in which organizational values were presented but without significant engagement by the attending organizational actors. Therefore, we argue it is not enough to simply bring people together; they also need to have a format and a structured way to deal with the subjects at hand.
We tend to call this a third space communication, derived from Müller (2003), or in other words, collaboration technologies that can build bridges. Within such a third space, we suggest using a game setting because of the convincing potential these have shown in previous research, especially when it comes to effects like enabling shared communication and mutual understanding (Wenzler & Chartier 1999; Brandt 2006; Crockall 2011). The rules and procedures used in games can be considered constraints that structure the dialogue, enable assumption testing, and, at times, provoke novel thinking that might lead to innovation (Gudiksen 2015).


3. Research Method

This work is based on action research, that is, intervention experiments in design workshops in which we engaged participants in trying out new collaborative methods. This type of intervention experiment is in a family with Schön’s notion of exploratory experiments, in which an action is undertaken only to see what follows, and move-testing experiments, in which there is a possible end in mind (Schön 1983, p. 128–168).
We reported from experiments with two workshop cases and activities. The arrangement was a one-day workshop in which the business stakeholders played the game in different settings and conditions. This was eventually followed by more supporting events outside of the scope of this paper. We based the analysis on empirical material: notes and observations from the day. By comparing incidents across the sessions, we were able to explain how the dilemma game tool scaffolds the discussions of the organizational values at hand.

By connecting and bringing the two-game workshops with the organizations into the same paper, we were able to make cross-comparisons between case incidents. Here we looked for differences, similarities, and, above all, interesting nuances rather than generalization, the latter of which is rarely a goal in case studies. The cases were selected with the intention to develop “a metaphor or establish a school for the domain that the case concerns” (Flyvbjerg 2006, p. 230).

Case one: University College North Jutland rebranding
A large higher education institution in northern Jutland (UCN) initiated several projects with the purpose of re-branding the institution and differentiating itself from other institutions. The institution has four overall educational arenas: business, pedagogy, health, and technology. Approximately 17,000 students are enrolled in longer or shorter courses throughout the year, and the number of staff is approximately 900, based on the 2015 annual numbers.
After a couple of seminars, the top management decided to proceed with “Reflective practice learning” (RPL) as the umbrella definition that should characterize all educations.

“Reflective practice learning addresses that we have educations where the practice is the focal learning approach. Through our educations and development/research activities, the employees of tomorrow will be sharpened and add new knowledge to the labour market and create innovation.” (Source: Official brochure)

Subsequently, they established several working groups who would further develop a specific project attached to this learning approach.

Why The Game Creation Was Initiated

One of the working groups was tasked with the creation of a dialogue game. Ultimately, the purpose was to attract students based on this overall value and also to raise awareness for the employees in order for them to adopt this in their own ways in their teaching. Also, when we as game tool designers came in, the seminars were still running and the RPL definition was loosely defined, to say the least. All the first-year students were invited to play the game, and it continues to be an activity for the newcomers each year.


Game Design Considerations

Five categories supported the RPL approach: (1) Study environment, (2) Theory, (3) Learning activities, (4) Practice, and (5) Students. Eventually, the group settled on a dilemma game in which each of these categories had a deck of cards with supporting dilemmas. Dilemmas were collected through “crowdsourcing” experiences from the students currently enrolled. Another deck of cards was created to enable “perspective changes” in the game. In creativity and innovation management literature, this has been acknowledged as a fruitful way to accelerate out of routine thinking (Stokes, 2005; Michalko, 2006). For our purposes, this was achieved through the use of publicly known fictive or real figures written into the cards, for instance, James Bond, and they had to imagine dealing with the dilemma if they were actually him (i.e., how would he approach it?). Because this was a central feature in the game, the game was eventually called UCN Boomerang to metaphorically express the “throwing” back of initiatives.

A rather simple game board was made with some inspiration from the entertainment game Trivial Pursuit invented by Chris Haney and Scott Abbott. Participants played in pairs, and they each had a game brick with a specific colour. Taking turns, the pairs dealt with a specific dilemma from a specific “constrained” perspective. Two dice were used for movement and decision on “task-types.” There were three task types:

1. Solution-oriented – Come up with two approaches to this dilemma.
2. Consequences – Write down two potential consequences for the main actors involved.
3. Prevention – How could the participants avoid ending up in such a dilemma?

By the end of the game, the group discussed the best answers and was given specific “badges” (called Boomerangs). Debriefing sessions followed to enhance knowledge sharing and learning. Securing time for such debriefings is vital in a game with a learning purpose (Thiagarajan 1992).
Applied game dialogue examples

In a test run with three groups consisting of students with diverse backgrounds, it was found that the perspective changes sometimes led to novel and unexpected ideas. These ideas provided a quality dialogue about approaching a specific dilemma or similar dilemmas in a different way that could turn out to be more fruitful. In the groups, not all the cards led to such radical discussions, but in all groups, three to five new, quality approaches could be counted.
By the end of the game, the pairs had a full plate of approaches to choose from. When the participants gave “boomerang badges” to each other it could be observed that they easily came to decisions and chose to divide them more or less equally giving all pairs some credit. In situations where no agreement was found the participants used majority vote.

In a second example from a test-run with the management (not the students), we observed that the game also had an effect on the management as the many different viewpoints from the employees (teachers, study coordinators, department managers) came into play and were discussed in a positive manner. It was expressed by the management that the game had the right balance between playful engagement and creating awareness, as well as learning about the RPL approach and the associated categories.

Unfortunately, the management and the students were not brought together. This might have been an interesting discussion and an opportunity for the management to present themselves and for the students to see who was behind the major administrative decisions about their education.


Case Two: NETS Rekindling Of Organizational Values

The organizational value communication challenge was the starting point in a case with a large Nordic company that offers value propositions mainly related to payment solutions of various kinds.

“At NETS we deliver great payments, a great network and great ideas, carried out by great people.” (Source: NETS homepage)
Why the game creation was initiated

As part of a larger strategy rollout, the top management was eager to rekindle their organizational values—this time with a greater impact. The value-set outlined by the management was based on a set of “positive” approaches to the values, that is, values that the company would like to be known for, and also a set of “negative” approaches to the values to be avoided as much as possible.

In this case, the game was first used in a meeting with the top management and team leaders just before events related to the rekindling of the values took place. This was followed by the teams playing the game at a time of their own choosing and at special cross-division events through conference calls.
Game design considerations
As game designers, we were given a set of design criteria that we had to work with. The game should be simple and easy to learn. The game should be easy to distribute and preferably printable for each team leader. As well, the game had to somehow be playable across departments and units in various countries, that is, at a distance, which meant that we needed to work with a blended version with both physical and digital elements.
We created a game board with hexagonal markers. Each of these contained a specific dilemma. In this game, the participants all played together and competed against the board. This created a collaboration between participants and led to a shared enemy. When dealing with the dilemmas, the participants had to follow three simple steps:

1. Analyzing the dilemma based on factors that could turn values into a negative source. They gave scores from 0 to 3.
2. Generate one or two approaches.
3. Evaluate the approach against positive values. They gave scores from 0 to 1.

In this way, the participants earned points through working with the dilemmas. From the outer A series, the participants could then move into the next series and ultimately reach the “grand dilemmas” by the end. The complexity and, with this, the difficulty rose when they moved to the next series. In 60 minutes, the participants played through 8 to 9 dilemmas, and each time they needed to address the values.

To enable a play possibility across borders and from a distance, an interactive slideshow was created with all the dilemma descriptions and the dice. Therefore, the only two things to print were the board and a single game brick.

The game ends when the participants have been through 8-9 dilemmas or beaten the board score (see fig. 6). After this, the groups could compare approaches and discuss how they experienced the gameplay.


Applied Game Dialogue Examples

While playing the game, participants would have to go through a dialogue process containing the before mentioned three steps in a chronological way following the game structure.

This dialogue created a solution customized to fit the participants’ own understanding and working experience. At the same time, the dialogue created shared communication about different work experiences and forced compromises fitted to various dilemma context since participants are sharing specifics from their own everyday working situations. If the dilemma is not representing the participants’ working context we observed that they instead practised and exchanged ideas about the specifics around the context of the dilemma.

In the evaluation part of the game, participants were reinforcing the elements of the company values. In this phase of the game, we saw that the perceptions of behaviour came into play. Participants tested their perception of a specific behaviour embraced in the company values in a shared narrative of the context of the dilemma. This process and dialogue created a wider understanding of the context of the dilemma and behaviour behind a value. This was also where the concepts of “wall of qualifications came into play”.

Together the three steps secured a 60 minutes’ dialogue on the values from different perspectives.

One of the main discussion points in the debriefing was the decision to make it a collaborative game with the board (and increased complexity) as the enemy. A couple of the participants preferred a more competitive session using this as a driver, while others preferred this edition and the collaboration. The Head of HR development at NETS afterwards expressed the outcome in this way:

“The game has given us three things: A new and different way to work with values that engage people. The participants are walked through the values and their meaning again, and again, and after only one hour they remembered the essence of the values. Finally, the game contributes to both unlearning and acquiring of the behaviour we wish to cultivate in Nets in order to strengthen our company culture.”

Overall the process secured and created a structured dialogue with a clear focus on the company set of values in relation to specific everyday dilemma situations.


Comparison Of Games & Critical Discussion On Enduring Effects

In this section, we start by comparing the game elements and the effects these had on the dialogues. This is followed by a discussion on three critical perspectives on the applied games and ways to further extrapolate the approach.

A basic insight from the UCN case was the effect that working in pairs had on the dialogue and engagement of each participant. It was easy for all to contribute and they felt like having a partner. Competition between the pairs seemed to work, although on a few occasions it became more fun than useful. Group playing in the NETS case worked well and they, in general, pursued to move quickly to the more complex dilemmas, however, if there were too many in the group a few participants seemed to be less involved.

With perspective changes, the pairs were challenged on their routine thinking and first assumptions leading to surprising radical approaches – some useful, some not. In the NETS case, the rules were rather simple, but the simple act that the participants had to evaluate approaches up against the values led to a better understanding of these and supporting diverse interpretations.
We were curious whether or not having digital elements would move concentration away from the game board, and lead to less participation from all and thereby less social interaction. However, this was not what we observed. Instead, all participants could quickly read the dilemma one more time if they were not sure about the understanding.


Two-Way Communication Or Not

Especially in the NETS game, we found that both top management and team leaders were challenged throughout the game, not only in terms of the dilemmas but also on the official text supporting the dilemmas. In this case, the alignment of values was not only a matter of presenting values and using them as performance indicators but also an issue of supporting the removal of barriers. This resembles what Buur and Larsen (2010) have called “positive conflicts” that both parties learn from. Due to the fact that the management and the students in the UCN case were not together, it was less two-sided communication in the same way—only in the following activities between students and teachers or study coordinators. Therefore, in this case, it mostly acted as a horizontal bridge-maker, that is, a way to reach shared communication between students with diverse personal and professional backgrounds.


Top-Down Or Not

In the two cases, the initiatives came from management, and, more importantly, they were defined by management in the end. However, at UCN they had a series of seminars that supported the understanding of these and challenged how to define them. In the NETS case, it seemed they were already defined and to some degree considered settled when we came in. No noteworthy activities were held to collaboratively define NETS official values; therefore, less ownership could be observed in gameplay, to begin with, and perhaps we will also see this consequence with the further rollout of the game.


Enduring Or Not

At this point, the organizations are requesting annual updates on the dilemmas and game material. They have been distributed to the team leaders and project managers at NETS, and, likewise, at UCN, they are given to the study coordinators and teachers. When and how they use them from here is still up for investigation; however, it seems that the ones who either have tried the game a couple of times or have been part of the development are best equipped to further embed and roll out the game in the organization, and also seem to be the most enthusiastic. Some of them might use them extensively and others might not; nonetheless, increased attention toward the values and how the individuals might live by them was successful.


Tentative Conclusions & Practical Implications

We find that the game tool enables two-way communication resulting in a constructive approach to solve or manage any problems, dilemmas, or paradoxes associated with the values. It has the potential to become a win-win situation. The corporate communication initiative is fueled by the employees’ or students’ attention to the purpose behind them and by the evaluation of them against everyday dilemma situations they might encounter. Also, the game tool becomes a way to connect silos and create the necessary communication between departments that seems to be neglected in everyday work situations or is simply not prioritized by management.
We need to further explore the enduring effects within the companies and substantiate the research further; however, the results from these initial cases show that the approach had a convincing impact on organizational parties in the situations at hand. To extrapolate the approach and make stronger game tools and activities, a future focus could be to see the values as a dynamic activity that unfolds over time and depends also on the individuals and newcomers in the organizations. After all, organizational culture is defined by the people that are part of the company, not only top management—often, the official values do not change even though new and strong individual values can be spotted. Individual values could, for instance, become part of official values along the way. In recruitment, this could also create incentives for the new employees to take part in this dynamic value definition. This could perhaps lead to a better way for individuals to gain what Sullivan et al. (2001) call “self-gratification.”

A high number of organizations introduce and work with organizational values on an annual basis; however, it is done in a top-down approach characterized by formal inquiries wrapped in strategic documents or annual managerial presentations. We show a way out of the impasse that might be beneficial for many other organizations. Also, we argue that this is a highly effective way to move toward a boundaryless organization in which silos are connected in a systematic way and communication flows more naturally between divisions and teams because of the game tools’ ability to establish shared communication and mutual learning. This counts for value-based strategies but potentially also for other strategic moves.



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