What Makes Innovation Games Special?
Innovation Games possess several qualities that stand out among the various approaches of qualitative market research. One quality is reflected in their name: Innovation Games. By referring to them as "games of collaborative play," I am intentionally conditioning your mind to think about the many fun ways you can work with your customers to better understand their needs. This can be contrasted with traditional surveys and focus groups, which are often not designed to be fun and may not include a heavy emphasis on collaboration.
The games themselves, while fun, are more than just play. As detailed in Part Two, each game leverages deep principles of cognitive psychology and organizational behavior to uncover data that is difficult to uncover using traditional market research techniques. As you come to understand the power of these deep principles, your use of the games will improve, and you'll find yourself able to discover even richer data.
One area you'll improve through experience is your willingness to put your customer in control and "trust" the process of the game. Innovation Games are not tightly controlled by a facilitator. In fact, a well-facilitated game has exactly the opposite effect; there is a bit of chaotic fun as customers become fully engaged in the game. You'll know a game is going really well when your customers don't want to stop playing (drawing their spider webs or creating their product boxes, for instance). This is precisely what you want, for when customers are fully engaged in the task, they won't want to stop. Neither will you, because it is this deep level of engagement that gets past any barriers to communication and produces the most honest and useful feedback.
Innovation Games are also distinguished from other forms of market research that do not involve the product team in the preparation phase and leave the product team as distant observers during the research. In an Innovation Game, the team is expected to actively participate in preparing for the game (and have fun doing so). During the game, even one that is professionally facilitated by a third party, a cross-functional product team is expected to act as observers who are involved firsthand in gathering data from customers. They see product boxes being created and hear them being sold. They watch product trees take shape and listen to customers explain how they are growing over time. They see complex spider webs of relationships emerge and can explore why these relationships are important to customers. This can be contrasted to other forms of qualitative research in which teams are hidden behind a two-way mirror or are looking through the small lens of a video camera.
Preparing to play the games helps product teams confirm their goals for their offerings and their goals for the market research. Playing the games internally before playing the games with customers helps increase your confidence in the power of the games. This doesn't mean that the games are complex. Quite the contrary. The games are designed to be simple to explain, simple to play, and rich in results.
All the games are designed to leverage multiple dimensions of communication because multidimensional communication enables us to access the full power of our brain. To illustrate, a traditional survey or focus group mostly leverages the language-processing centers of our brain. Although clearly important, language is only one dimension of communication. Innovation Games let customers engage other centers of their brain, resulting in richer, deeper, and more meaningful exchanges of information. Examples of this rich communication range from the spatial arrangement of anchors when playing Speed Boat to the way customers react to each other when sharing their use of a product in Start Your Day. The richness of these communications find their way back into the organization through the often stunning commitment to action that results from Innovation Games. The experience of reading about a desired new product feature written in a Marketing Requirements Document is radically different than the experience of seeing this same feature described on a product box generated by a customer.
I've experienced the same level of commitment from customers who play Innovation Games. Many of the games are based on customers working together creating, negotiating, explaining, prioritizing, and envisioning the products and services that will enable them to accomplish their goals. By giving them a shared voice, Innovation Games not only improve relationships between you and your customers, it encourages them to create and sustain relationships among each other. Although this may not be reflected directly in your cash flow statement, consider that your balance sheet does have a line item for Good Will. Playing the games will increase it.
An additional benefit of Innovation Games is that instead of producing a dry report of your analysis and recommendations, you can bring back the various artifacts created by customers. As one Director of Product Marketing described it, instead of endlessly debating the "perfect" marketing messages to promote a new product, she simply pointed out the surprising commonality of the common marketing slogans coined by several customers playing Product Box and said: "Our customers wrote this. We're going to use it." By leveraging direct customer feedback, she saved considerable time and expense.