Why you should use Visual Thinking and Serious Games for managing your projects

Did you know that Visual Thinking and Serious Games can help you manage your projects better?

You are probably wondering what exactly Visual Thinking is and if playing games will get you fired— even tough they are called “serious”...

Let me explain.

Project management = Problem solving

Managing a project is basically the same thing as solving a really big and complex problem. In most cases it’s not only one problem but more like a continuos stream of smaller problems.

Project planning vs. how things really happen

Some of these problems are clearly visible from the start but others simply appear out of nowhere.

For a any relevant project it is obvious that you can’t do all the problem solving by yourself.

You need other people with different expertise and skills to work with you.

This is great but also it creates a new set of problems: You need to communicate, explain and collaborate.

Solving hard problems through collaboration and communication with a diverse group of people — does that sound familiar?

If it does, it is probably a pretty good description of your job.

What are the typical problems that need to be solved?

  • Developing a vision and communicating it to all stakeholders.
  • What to do and what not to do: Planning and prioritizing
  • Making good decisions — even under uncertainty
  • Uncovering hidden things — like new uses for an existing product, project risks, unknown dependencies or missing knowledge
  • Processing information and making sense of it
  • Keeping everyone up to date

How can playing serious games help?

Let’s think for a minute about what a game is and what playing means.

Luke Hohmann, CEO of Conteneo and creator of many Innovation Games® puts it like this (1):

„A game is an endeavor in which one or more players voluntarily strive to accomplish a goal through a well-defined set of rules and constraints. “

This does sound a bit like a description of a project, doesn’t it?

What makes a game “serious” is the context in which it is played. In the context of business, serious games can be a very efficient way of solving complex business problems.

Problem solving in teams

The key to solving problems well is having clarity about all the different aspects of the problem, a shared commitment to solve the problem and an engaged team that is collaborating well.

How likely is this going to happen in long and tedious meetings where most of the attendees hide behind a laptop? Right.

You’re thinking that there must be a better way of doing project work? Read on, because there is!

Serious Games for more effective knowledge work

Serious Games are a better way of doing knowledge work in a group. Playing a serious game to solve a business problem is…

  • engaging — everyone likes to play
  • truly collaborative — a goal can only be reached by working together
  • perspective changing — looking at things from a different view point is often the spark for insights and new ideas
  • fun — drawing, talking and moving things around is definitely more fun than staring at dense powerpoint slides

Serious Games make the group smarter

Recent research shows that the “collective intelligence” of the group — its ability to solve problems — is greatly enhanced when activity is more equally spread among group members and not dominated by one or two people.

The mechanics of the games support this kind of behaviour in a group. This is exactly what engaging and collaborative means: Everyone can contribute on an equal basis to the outcome of the game.

What does a Serious Game look like?

Now it is time to take a look at one of the many games you can use to solve a business problem.

Imagine your job is to improve an important product or service for your company. In the past months sales figures have been going down and management wants to see some new ideas and improvements fast.

What should you do? First of all you need to find out what is happening and why your customers don’t like your product as much as they used to do.

You invite your colleagues from marketing, sales, customer care, finance and IT and ask them what they think needs to be improved.

But instead of having a long and energy draining 2h meeting with endless discussions you play Speed Boat with them. Speed Boat is used to identify what customers don’t like about your product or service.

It is played like this:

  • You draw a speed boat on a piece of flipchart paper. The boat represents your product and you’d like it to go really fast.
  • Unfortunately it is held back by some anchors. The anchors represent things customers don’t like about your product.
  • Players now use post-it notes to write down what they don’t like about the product or service. They then place the notes on the paper.
  • The placement of an anchor indicates if it is a “heavy” one (big problem) or a “light” one (small inconvenience).
  • Everone works in silence and places his or her anchors on the flipchart.
  • When people are done you start to go through each anchor and let your colleagues explain why they put it there.

What you’ll get from this is not only a list of pain-points for your product but also valuable insights and ideas for improvements from the discussions that are happening in the group as they engage in the game.

Also everyone can see what others view as problematic or worthy of improvement. Which brings us to the next point:

How does Visual Thinking help?

A simple Visual Thinking tool: Use post-it notes to collect features, benefits and challenges of any idea or project.

By externalizing internal knowledge:

Visual Thinking helps you and your team to solve problems by making your thoughts and ideas visible.

Often problem solving begins with having a discussion about what the problem actually is.

I am sure you have been part of countless conversations in meetings that were drawn in a different direction every five minutes — or with every change of speaker: “You know the real issue here is…” and off they go in yet another direction.

This is a sure indicator that people have vastly different understanding of what the problem is. And that’s a problem.

Visual Thinking can help you in achieving clarity and in creating shared understanding in a group. Simply by drawing a couple of little pictures.

Why? Because things that you can see and point to are really much easier to discuss and explain.

By making ideas visible it becomes much easier for others to build on existing ideas, to clarify meaning and to achieve shared understanding.

Visual Thinking is mostly associated with drawing little pictures and that is a great way to think visually — but if you view it more like a general approach to thinking you can use any kind of visualisation tool or technique you want.

Take this and create something new.

Want to be a better project manager? Use Visual Thinking and Serious Games!

Havard Business School researcher Teresa Amabile has written this sentence about project work in her book The Progress Principle:

“Project teamwork in most modern organizations is collaborative and complex, requiring ongoing problem solving and deep engagement.”

Visual Thinking and Serious Games are a modern ways of doing exactly that.

Use drawings to manage complexity, find new ideas and communicate with your team. Play serious games to solve complex issues and engage team members in a truly collaborative effort.

The combination of Visual Thinking and Serious Games will make you and the people in your team better problem solvers, more efficient communicators, better collaborators and more creative thinkers!

Want to learn more?

I am offering consulting and training for Visual Thinking and Serious Games in german and english. You can contact me here and find out more on my website.

Have fun playing :-)

Alex Staenke
The Thinking Company


  1. „How to Prioritize Your Project Portfolio Using Conteneo Collaboration Games” A Playbook in the Epic Wins Series, Copyright 2014 Conteneo, Inc. “