Introducing Cards Against How Might We

A game for changemakers in government

SPOILER ALERT: We recently shared Cards Against How Might We game files on GitHub so that anyone can download, print, and play. Cards Against How Might We (CaHMW) is a card game that practices the art of reframing a problem statement into a question. If you want to learn more about the game and how we created it, read on!

Why we created Cards Against How Might We

When we were approached to introduce Design Thinking to other public servants in Nova Scotia we started with discovery research. As we talked to a range of people from various departments who had applied design thinking methods in our public service, we heard over and over about “How Might We”. How Might We questions are challenges or problems reframed as a question to help see opportunities or provoke ideas. We heard that this design thinking method was a key learning, and that it had an impact when used to frame problems or challenges in all kinds of situations.

We also heard how useful this method was in getting around the mindset of “we can’t” that is sometimes common in a government context. We didn’t need much convincing. We had seen first-hand in our own human centered design work, how impactful this kind of framing could be. So How Might We (HMW) easily made the list of the tools and mindsets we would deliver to learners.

How to teach the power of a How Might We?

Because we had two days to provide design thinking instruction, we knew we wanted to keep things interactive, and mix theory with practice. Late one day, while looking at the schedule and musing, “How could we teach HMW using a game?” the idea popped.

“What if it was a card game? Like Cards Against Humanity?”

The seeds of Cards Against How Might We (CaHMW) were sown. We envisioned a game where every time someone tried to do something, they were blocked with some kind of “we can’t” statement. Then people could practice creating How Might We questions to get around the blockers. As with all things, we had a lot of work to do, getting from what we thought was a clever idea, to something that would deliver the outcomes we hoped for.

Crowdsourcing common blockers or “we can’t” statements

Initially, we simply asked our team to populate a shared document. “What are the limiting statements that shut down ideas that you’re hearing the most?” Folks didn’t have any trouble quickly listing off a few.

“That direction needs to come from the top.”

“It’s against the rules to do that.”

“That will never work.”

They felt familiar and universal. Then we thought, I wonder if this is the same everywhere? We asked the same question on Slack to the International Design in Government community and a few other places. The results were positive. Not only had we confirmed that there are several universal “blocker statements” in government’s around the world, there was also enthusiasm and interest in how the game could work.

A good game requires many, many, many, iterations

To start, we created a set of the common blocker statements on basic printer paper. We were piloting our design thinking session and so it was an opportunity to test out the cards with a friendly group of people who would give us valuable feedback. We learned from that test, that it was hard to brainstorm a How Might We without a scenario. As facilitators, we were adding the context that would come before the blocker by describing a situation verbally. Our testers challenged us. Could we make the game less reliant on having facilitators?

For the second iteration, we added cards with specific situations to give a context rather than relying on facilitators. These new “situation cards” were black with white text design. Now things were beginning to resemble the original game of Cards Against Humanity!

“You’ve just come back from taking a course. You suggest trying out some new things you learned to tackle an old issue in your area. Someone says, ‘__________’ ”

Many of the situations were based on our own experiences, others had come in with the suggestions in our earlier crowdsourcing. Again, we printed on basic paper and asked our team mates to play a round.

A sequence of 4 photo’s showing the versions of the cards as the iterations progressed over time
Caption: Showing the progression of the game over many iterations.

This time, we learned that the situation cards really helped the game play. Our team helped refine the content as they asked for clarification. Since we were working with paper we could mark up and edit on the spot. We were also learning how the game play or flow could work best, and what questions people still had. One team member, who’s always thinking about the end user pointed out a challenge.

“This is really hard to do if you’ve never done it before. I wish there were examples.”

Could we provide examples? It took a few more iterations, but the answer was “yes”. First, we created blue “possibility” cards that corresponded to each of the blocker cards. When tried them out, we realized that the fidelity of a printed card was implying that they were “the answer”. So we scrapped that version.

In the next iteration, we shifted the example HMWs to a “cheat sheet” handout. The cheat sheet format also provided the space for participants to make notes and add their own How Might We questions. As a bonus it was something people could take away from the session and continue to practice.

“That cheat sheet is gold. I keep it at my desk now!”

The most recent iteration we made was to add insights related to the example HMWs provided in the cheat sheet. For us, insights are where we derive meaning from the patterns in our data. We clarify what’s important, and its impact.

“Often ‘the rules’ are not what we think. Interpretations become entrenched over time. It’s important to check the source of the rules vs. the understood implementation.”

When we introduce the concept of How Might We, we note that they are often most effective when underpinned by insights. It seemed helpful to include some insights we’ve gathered in our experiences in government that had helped unblock “we can’t” statements.

Photo of a man holding three blocker cards while playing the CaHMW game.
Caption: People playing Cards Against How Might We in a recent session.

What participants and learners have told us

It’s taken several iterations and we’ve run multiple sessions of the game with all kinds of public servants. What we hear over and over is how much of a light bulb moment playing Cards Against How Might We is. Not only does it create a fun, collaborative way to practice a getting around blockers, it also helps people realize that they’re not alone in the blocker experience.

“It has a nice way of helping people notice how we can all be blockers without pointing a direct finger at anyone.”

Recently, we had the opportunity to deliver the game to distributed learners with the Digital Academy at the Canadian School of Public Service. This required us to modify the game play slightly, so we created a miro board with the cards and content. The board, in conjunction with zoom break out rooms allows folks to have a similar experience as a table of 4–5 participants.

A screen shot of the miro board with instructions for how to play CaHMW online.
Caption: A screen shot of the miro board version of Cards Against How Might We

For this version, we pre-selected common combinations of cards that we’ve noticed come up frequently in play. We piloted the experience and learned lots. This helped ensure the distributed version delivered on the outcomes we hoped for. Then we ran the improved online session with 30 learners. The feedback as positive and it seemed to have the same impact as in person.

“The HMW exercise was certainly an eye opener. I need some practice!”

CaHMW goes open source

Since the early days of crowdsourcing with our international peers, we’ve intended to share our work back to the community that helped us create it. In digital government, there are so many jurisdictions that have generously shared with us. If this game can help build capacity in other public servants, we are happy to pay it forward.

We recently shared the CaHMW files on GitHub so that anyone can run their own session of the game. Along with the instructions and a moderator guide, there are files for the card sets. For now, they’re simply in word documents which makes them easy to print. Also, the document format means it’s straightforward to add more content if there’s something specific to your context you’d like to include.

We’re looking forward to seeing what happens with Cards Against How Might We in the open. Our hope is that it will create an opportunity for others to add on and improve the game.

Let us know!

Have you changed a conversation with How Might We? If you’ve had the opportunity to download and play the game… what was your experience?



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Beth Fox

Beth Fox

Service Designer for Nova Scotia Digital Services team. Chronically curious, cares deeply about people & planet, and always asking “how might we?”