Seriously, can getting employees to play a board game actually get them to better understand the company’s strategy — and the need for innovation and growth?
That was the hope at Assurant, the Manhattan-based firm that insures everything from boats to homes to smartphones. With about $30 billion in assets and $8 billion in annual revenue, the company has been adjusting its strategy and focus as it sells off certain businesses, like health insurance and employee benefits.
Among the goals behind the company’s Strategy Learning Game:
- • Helping employees understand the direction the company is going and “how they fit in”
- • Welcoming a diversity of perspectives to promote innovation and growth
- • Drive a cultural shift to urgency, adaptive thinking, agility, and accountability
- • Increase engagement with enterprise business goals, plans, results and their own personal contribution
Melissa Kivett, Assurant’s Senior Vice President of Business Development and Strategy, explained the thinking behind the company’s game; how it was developed, and why they didn’t avoid touchy topics; how Assurant rolled it out to more than 13,000 employees in 2015; and the impact it has had.
Origins of the Game
I’d worked for our new CEO for about a month. He said, “We need to help employees understand our strategy and become more nimble.” I looked at him a little bit like, “Wow, that’s big.” With employees in 15 countries around the world, I knew this would be a massive undertaking.
I said I’d go talk to Human Resources, and he said, “That’ll take too long — let’s think differently about this.” He gave me the flexibility to try to develop something that would really change behavior, and enable our employees to be prepared for and understand different choices they would make to help us follow our strategy or grow our business.
At an innovation meeting in New York, I’d heard about a game Disney created with a small group of HR people. I’d been reading about gamification, and I’ve always been intrigued about human behavior and what drives change. We came up with this crazy idea that building a game could work for us, too. That’s how it was introduced to our board: “Melissa has got another crazy idea.” We started discussing it in 2014, and it was rolled out in 2015.
Why Not Just Hold Training Sessions or Workshops?
In the past, senior leadership would have done a road show. We’d have had facilitated discussions in different offices, and left behind a strategy deck. But this approach made it more real. People like to be part of the decisions. I really loved the idea of enabling the discussions to be had by the people who were closest to the customer. And this would allow us to reduce ambiguity and reach people on the front lines who work directly with clients and customers. (See the image below comparing the typical strategy discussion with a strategy learning experience.)
How We Created It
I did a lot of research about games and gamification. My approach was to create a partnership. I knew I’d need to engage in diversity of perspectives, even within the company. I quickly asked the learning and development expert in Assurant for help.
Then, we created a steering committee for it. It took us a while to get alignment on the objectives. People in HR and heads of strategy at our various businesses were early supporters. They all knew that culture is king, and that you can’t change direction of the company until we have these kinds of discussions with our employees.
We found a bunch of companies who develop games and learning maps. The vendor we chose was the Learning Design Network in California. They had behavioral experts, and consultants with masters in learning and development, who could make sure that the game sparked the kinds of discussions that would lead to the right kind of behavioral change.
We had 16 prototypes of the game. Teams would advance in the game, moving around the board, if they made effective decisions about threats, opportunities, and trends in our markets. A card would present a topic, challenge a common misconception, and simulate a real trade-off decision that we would need to make. A team of five or six employees would discuss that, and create consensus around whether they agreed or disagreed, and what they would do. (See card examples at right and below.)
Early on, we discovered our game prototype wasn’t encouraging the right type of discussions. People were focused on moving forward in the game and winning, versus engaging in discussions about the company’s strategy and exchanging in meaningful dialogue. In some early prototypes, the discussions and decisions weren’t edgy enough. We needed the responses to the cards to be not as transparent, to get people to engage in more dialogue.
At one point, we got our top 200 leaders together to play a prototype. I asked them to identify where they saw people either making the wrong strategic choices or not understanding an issue. And we asked them to give us more ideas about content that would help challenge people. That gaming session turned out to be transformational, in helping us create more richness in the content and the examples we give employees in the game.
We did interviews throughout the company so the content would represent each of our businesses, and everyone would feel ownership. We really wanted to the content to be real and candid about mistakes we’d made in the past. That can be hard for any company to admit — when you have done things wrong. And we did interviews throughout the company so the content would represent each of our businesses, and everyone would feel ownership.
We wanted to be mindful of the time commitment involved in playing. The game is an hour long. At Assurant, 80 percent of our employees are call center employees. There was concern about how much of their workday the game would take, so we had to keep it at a maximum of an hour.
People played the game over eight months in 2015. The game was self-led. You were talking about the strategy and asking the questions. People weren’t just being told what the company was doing, but it was about being able to understand those decisions themselves. We had them play in groups of four or five. The group had to be small, otherwise some people might be left out of the discussions and unable to ask questions. Employees weren’t just being told what the company was doing, but it was about being able to understand those decisions themselves.
Our CEO played it six times. He says he learned something new every time, because he played it with different people who had different perspectives.
The CEO of our health business initially wasn’t receptive to the idea – “We have healthcare reform going on…we can’t play a game.” I kept calling him back. He finally said, “OK, but how the heck do I do this? Everyone’s working weekends, getting ready for healthcare reform.” But he did say that they’d have a period of two months after enrollment ended, when his people would have downtime. As it turns out, that business had the highest participation rate of any of our businesses — 97 percent — and their business is going through the most dramatic change.
We had people who became self-appointed “game ninjas.” It wasn’t my intent, but there were so many people in different parts of the world who raised their hand to promote the game within their office. They became a network of influencers who would get their local offices to engage in discussions about the company’s strategy and the content of the game. We had HR leaders facilitating the roll-out, and making sure that space was set up and employees were playing. But the ninjas took it on themselves to have a launch meeting to talk about the game, or they went to another group and led a discussion about it at a department meeting. And they wanted to keep the discussion alive – even after people had finished playing the game.
Our team in the UK decided that they would hike one of the tallest peaks in the UK, and they would play the game when they got to the top of the mountain. They sent a photo of themselves playing it.
We got weekly feedback about the game, and employee counts of how many people had played it. Our steering committee had a weekly call, and we even made a few adjustments, including changes to the feedback survey and couple of the cards after we had begun the roll-out.
Don’t Shy Away from Controversy
Some of the best conversations came from the playing cards which discussed choices where we had made mistakes, and real-life examples of businesses we didn’t do well, and where we decided there were better owners for a business. Employees thought the game enabled candid discussions about not only what worked, but what didn’t work. The game helped people discuss these strategic decisions. It was kind of like, people had heard about it in the rumor mill, but here it was in black and white on the card, admitting we made the wrong choice.
Some of the paradoxes we presented for people to react to in the game were quite interesting. We had one about the world becoming smaller and more similar, and how what we do in the US might work globally — we can translate it. That one created some of the most debate, because we had always been a risk-averse company.Another card presented the idea that we should focus on the end consumer of our products, when we had been primarily a business-to-business company that sells through large financial institutions or phone carriers. That kind of consumer understanding was an idea that was new and controversial to some people. (The game board is below.)
Changing culture is an amorphous thing. It’s hard to put metrics around. What we focused on was engagement as one of the primary metrics of success. We had been very siloed as a company, so one of the objectives was to help the company move forward as one and break down barriers between departments and product lines. When people played, they started out at first thinking it was just about their business, but they soon discovered they shared challenges and commonalities with other businesses across the company.
At a time of tremendous change for Assurant, we exceeded our engagement objectives. More than 82 percent of our employees said that the game got them to be engaged and feel engaged. It was just a great opportunity to democratize the discussion about our strategy, and enable the mailroom employee to teach the CEO about what he thought about what the company was doing. We got such diversity of ideas, even from people you might think were 9-to-5ers, and not engaged with where the company was going. They started to talk about not only what the company could do differently, but what they could do, and were empowered to do.
If you do the same thing every day, can you expect a different outcome? That’s how I think about using tools like the game. It may not work at every company, but gamification is a compelling tool that really connects with people.
Since we rolled out the game, I have talked to companies Vonage, Pfizer, and AT&T about the game. Everyone loves games, everyone loves competing, and it’s fun. When you think about how you want to spend your time, what would you rather do — play a game or sit through another PowerPoint presentation? The cost of the investment isn’t that high relative to the return.
If you really want different behavior and you want to drive change, you’ve got to think about different ways of engaging people.