Ep. 284 - David Cutler, Author of The Game of Innovation on Integrating Creativity & Gaming into Business Innovation


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On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with David Cutler, author of the new book, The Game of Innovation. David and I talk about how companies can integrate creativity and gaming into their innovation practices. And we'll discuss some of the best practices, tactics, and techniques that you can use in the process. Let's get started.

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Interview Transcript with David Cutler, Author of The Game of Innovation

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have David Cutler. He is the founder and CEO of the Puzzler Company. He's a Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of South Carolina. And I have him on the show because he's the author of a new book called The Game of Innovation. Welcome, David.

David Cutler: Thank you. It's so great to have the opportunity to chat with you.

Brian Ardinger: The book is very visual. And I would love to be able to show pictures of that. Maybe we'll put some of that in the show notes. Let's start about your background and how did you get into this game of innovation?

David Cutler: You know, so much of the work that I do is with different kinds of organizations, focused on all kinds of problems. Sometimes it's around culture. Or it's around trying to achieve certain results. But they're not sure exactly what to do. And so, we worked together to design some kind of a process or a game.

And then often we'll work on multiple teams. Where they'll come up with these great ideas and figure out how to design it. Often it is run as a tournament, so the teams will compete. But sometimes we do fusion rounds where parts of this idea are combined with parts of another idea or have all different kinds of formats.

Brian Ardinger: So, you've been working with a lot of different types of companies out there. What are some of the biggest obstacles that organizations face when it comes to innovation?

David Cutler: So, I think when it comes to innovation or when it comes to change, most leaders that I know have one of two fundamental beliefs. Or one of two fundamental leadership styles. And unfortunately, as well-intentioned as they may be, they often do not work.

The first is top-down leadership. This idea that, you know, I have the big ideas as the leader. That's my responsibility or maybe my inner circle. And over time, I'm going to impose any number of these big ideas upon the community. And look you or I, we might love those ideas as outsiders, but it turns out that most people do not like being told what to do. Especially if it's different from what they've always done before.

So as a result, people digging their heels. They push back or maybe they retreat. Morale plummets and the likes. And usually even if the change is implemented, it's probably not going to stay. And you know, most of those top-down leaders suffer one of two fates. Either they're fired or maybe they're promoted to a place where they can torment more people.

Brian Ardinger: Do less damage.

David Cutler: The other, the other perspective is this idea of bottom-up leadership. If we want change that. But if we want innovation to happen, it's got to come from the grass roots. Come from the trenches. And the problem with that is that most people have no idea that they are responsible for innovating the future. I think most of us believe my job is to do my job well. The thing that was outlined in the contract. So, if I'm supposed to serve French fries where I'm supposed to be the accountant, it's not immediately apparent that I'm also responsible for re-imagining the future.

Brian Ardinger: So, let's talk a little bit about why games are so important and, you know, that's obviously the topic of your book and it goes into great detail. And again, I love the book because it's very visual and it gives you a lot of tactical things that people can do. But why games? Why is that so important in this innovation space?

David Cutler: You know, I consider any well-designed process to be a game. Whether or not it's particularly gamey. You don't need dice and concept cards in order to effectively solve problems. And yet there are many, many benefits of unapologetic gamification. Games unify communities behind a common and shared sense of purpose. There's accountability to rules and results.

Puzzlers, as I call them, problem solvers are often much more open to thinking creatively and strategically in the context of a game. Finally, though, the problems we may be solving are really, really serious often. People are more likely to bring their best selves if they're really enjoying the process. So, games can be really fun. Even though they're hard, hard work.

Brian Ardinger: So, let's talk a little bit about how you go about crafting a game. And the importance of the different functions and that, of how you should do this in real life.

David Cutler: So, game is actually an acronym for a very, very loose and flexible system. So, game stands for G guidelines, an arena, M materials and E experience. It's not always the same. In fact, every time I design a game, or I encourage other people to do, I often want to mix things up, especially if you're working with the same community, but there are constant tools.

So, it just very, very quick. Guidelines G guidelines is about the parameters of your game. So, what's the most important challenge you're trying to solve. What's the problem at the core of things? What are the constraints? The non-negotiables that may not be challenged under any circumstances. Constraints are necessary to innovation. And criteria, what constitutes success.

So those are the guidelines. Usually those are written before the game has started. So, we really know what this game is all about. Arena is the conditions of play. It's about your puzzlers, period, and place. So, the puzzlers. Who is playing this game, what kind of people, what kind of experts do you need to best solve this problem?

Period. How long do you have to solve the problem and place? Where are you going to do this? And sometimes, you know, the arena before you start, and then you have to build a game that works within those conditions. As sometimes you know, this is the problem we have to solve. So, then you build the arena that will work with it.

And then materials are the tools of your game. Maybe you're in the physical world. Flip charts and crayons and prototyping materials. There are a whole bunch of things you can use online, in virtual games. And the experiences. What happens. What is the order of activities, in which order, for how long?

Brian Ardinger: I think a lot of people when they have gone through these types of exercises and different creativity events, and that, it's oftentimes boxed as like a training thing. Rather than something that you can do on a regular basis. So can you talk through how some of these techniques can be applied on everyday decisions. What's the everyday process that person can use with this type of technique?

David Cutler: To the point that you just made. I find sometimes that the people who use the word innovation the most, have never actually seen it happen in real life. It's a buzzword. They're not really sure what that means or what that feels like.

When you are working with a team for the first time you mentioned about this being training. Sometimes it's actually a good idea to have them focus on the problem that is not the most important problem facing the organization.

It's a skill like any other that can and must be cultivated. And if the first time you're ever working in this kind of format, you're also focused on something that you've been developing for 15 years and it feels very, very personal. It's hard to be open about it. So oftentimes the first time when working with an organization, the first game that they're playing is a good idea to identify something that resonates. But is not the biggest elephant in their particular room.

Hopefully, you know, through a great game, there is a focus on both process and product. So, we want them to come up with exquisite solutions. But also to be developing transferable skills that they can apply each and every day. So, we always try and find a balance of those two things. And in the game of innovation offer many, many tools that can be applied under a variety of circumstance.

Brian Ardinger: So, let's talk a little bit more about the book. It's a very collaborative effort. There's a lot of folks, it looks like from illustrators and that. So can you talk about the team and then talk about how the book came about.

David Cutler: So, there are four of us who worked on this book. I'm the primary author. And then I had a partner that we always bat things back and forth. And illustrator and a graphic designer. There's a saying that teams are better than solace. At least when it comes to creative efforts. When you work collaboratively, you'll just come up with bigger ideas, then if you're working alone. Because it's not just, what's in your brain plus what's in my brain, but also the parts of our imagination. That could only be even touched because our thinking intersected.

I've been running events for a long time where we bring in a graphic facilitator. Or someone, the woman who worked on book, her name is Patti Dobrowolski. And so, what she will do often when we're working with communities is instead of typing minutes on a computer, she will doodle things. She will draw things in real time. So, by the end of an hour or a day or a week, you have a visual representation of what happened.

It is true that a picture paints a thousand words. That an image can say so much more, than words alone. We live in a very visual society. So many people, I hear what you're saying, but I just, I just need to see it. So, we got this idea of if we're going to put this in a book, why not just talk about innovation, but make it look like innovation.

And hopefully the pictures help emphasize the message of the words and vice versa. When we started working, cause my other books are word books. And for this one decided that I wanted it to be visual.

But it turns out that when you were working in a visual context, you may have a profound word or a word of historic significance. Or word with a great sense of humor, or wonderful relatives. Or whatever it is.

It turns out too many words just looks ugly. In a visual context. So, I made a rule at the beginning of this that I was going to use short sentences, short paragraphs, short amount per page. And made Google docs, look, you know, one page on a Google doc would be like one page in a book. I'll never forget, I showed my work of concise poetry when I was starting this off to the illustrator. And she looked at it, and Patty said, oh, my God, David, you just go on and on.

And I'm like what do you mean? There are no words that here. What are you talking about? As she went through and slash slash slash. And so that was the challenge. I mean, it really changed my life. And the opportunity. How do you still tell stories? Still have clarity, still be specific. But with no words. Or with very, very, very words. It was an amazing process.

Brian Ardinger: So, let's dig into some examples of some of the experiences that you've had working with companies using these particular techniques. First talk through how do people get on board or how do you get people on board with this particular concept? Because it is different than I would say the typical way folks approach innovation sometimes.

David Cutler: I think it's pretty easy to get folks on board once they just warm to it. You know, the notion of a game which just feels playful is appealing. But also, a little bit scary for a lot of companies that were pretty seriously and have their own traditions of collaboration. In fact, what I hear from, you know, so many organizations is that they are focused on problems. But usually what happens is they'll say, here's the problem. What should we do?

Of course, conversation jumps from topic to topic on the back of a frog. You know, someone has an idea. Someone hates that idea. Someone else loves it. We tried that 10 years ago. Someone else says, yeah, we should do that tomorrow. And of course, all of those ways of approaching problems are essential to the process, but not at the same time.

And so, one of the tools that we use, we call them Great Gaming Goggles. And the idea is that there are five lenses of problem solving. Each one is a different color. And it's paired with a word that describes the activity that starts with the same letter.

And the idea is that when you're working with a team, and you design a game to make sure that you're using just one lens at a time. So, they're all important. But not at the same moment. So, you can figure out are we wearing in this specific task or question or activity.

Are we wearing the purple lens, which stands for propose, which is about creative idea generation. Are we wearing the green lens, which is about gathering it's about detective work. About learning the way that the world is and that it has been. Are we focused on feedback wearing a blue lens? Which means boost is about positive praise for an idea. Or a red lens, which is ripping. Is about constructive feedback. Or are we wearing the orange lens, which stands for own. Are we here to make a decision?

Almost every organization I've ever seen is really good at some of those steps. And this goes for individuals too. And has a tricky time with other parts of it. So, there are some communities where they have so many ideas, but they can never decide on anything. So, they have all these half-started projects. They haven't actually gotten that much done. And then you see the flip side where they're very, very decisive. But they keep doing the same thing over and over.

And so the process often starts by just exploring. You know, where have you been and what do you need to do. And then trying to figure out what format would work the best for.

Brian Ardinger: Do you find it beneficial for this type of process to start from a team level? Or can anybody create a game? What are some of the best-case scenarios that you've seen of how to actually start using some of these techniques with an organization?

David Cutler: You know it's a skill like anything else that gets better with practice. So not only solving problems but designing problem solving games. I think it could be a good idea to start with writing shorter games. We call them sprints. Two hours or less. And to figure out, you know, in a standard meeting, most meetings are what, an hour, 35 minutes, 15 minutes, something like that?

I see meetings as a huge, overlooked opportunity. I think so many of us look at meetings as this necessary, but unfortunate evil. The bane of our existence. The low point of our week. And I think that a meeting should be the high point of your week. Because that's when you convene your talent, and you have the opportunity to work on teams and solve actual problems.

So, I think a good place to start, if you are leading a meeting, Instead of doing the normal information dump at worst. Or at best maybe question and answer. To really think through, okay, we've got a 60-minute framework. What could we do? What are the steps that we would go through? So that by the end of 60 minutes, we're not going to have a detailed prototype. But could we actually solve some small part of some problem in 60 minutes. And feel like we have achieved something.

Brian Ardinger: Well, and going through that particular exercise, I would imagine if nothing else, it gives people a different sense of time. And when you start seeing progress in a short amount of time, it makes other things possible for the next 60 minutes that you sit down. Things along those lines.

David Cutler: Nothing ever gets done without brilliant people, but not quite enough time. I can give you an example of a game that I love to do that's maybe you can do in 25 minutes. Something I call Disaster Storm. And it has four steps. So, remember, you're asking one question at a time. So, we start off Disaster Storming by asking a group, maybe we're talking about podcasts.

Maybe you're saying, you know, I have a good podcast. You have a great podcast, by the way. We want to make it even better. Right. Maybe that's the thing. I want to do something that's really going to catch fire and generate a lot of buzz. So normally what happens is you say, well, what should we do? Well with Disaster Storming the first step, you know, we often say in brainstorming, there are no bad ideas. But what about terrible ideas?

You know, there's something about an idea that just puts a pit in your stomach, where you have an emotional reaction to it. Whereas good ideas or bad ideas, you can be more neutral too. But awful ideas, borderline illegal ideas. They really get a reaction. So, what I'll often do, let's say we're working with a group of 20 people or 50 people, is to position different teams. You know flip charts around the room.

And the first question would be to brainstorm. Maybe we say, I want you to brainstorm the worst possible ideas you can imagine for Brian's next podcast. Right. Maybe to do it, you know, while sitting on top of a landmine. Or a while streaking through the halls or right. You know, face-to-face right after you eat some garlic. You know, whatever it is, what are the worst possible ideas that you can come up with? That's the first phase.

So, they're only doing one. Then I have them flip places in the room. So, they rotate, and they inherit a list of terrible ideas. The next task that could take place at maybe 90 seconds is to find the most offensive, most terrible one and put an X by it.

The next step is to start, and then we go through a process of transforming that terrible idea into an extraordinary idea. How do you go from something? And often they're very, very close. It takes something that has that emotional pull to get you to think of other kinds of extraordinary things. And then we go through a process where they design that idea. They figure out what's the big idea on top. What are some of the wow-ables that happen underneath? And then they share their idea.

And in 30 minutes or less, often we will get more incredible ideas that most companies have gotten after weeks of struggling with a problem and maybe coming up with kind of variations of what they've always done. And it's really exciting.

Brian Ardinger: Very interesting. One of the things that I always talk to our guests about is, and I get asked about when it comes to innovation, is they totally understand that the creativity portion of innovation and thinking differently and that, but a lot of it comes back to, well, how do we measure if we're on the right track or how do we measure these outcomes that we're actually making progress and that.

I would imagine you have this objection to overcome when you talk about games. It's like, well, it's fun and that. So, it can't be worthwhile. So how do you talk about measuring outcomes in this particular environment?

David Cutler: In fact, that would be a great topic for a game. Like to figure out how do we measure success as we move towards this goal. Those kinds of benchmarks are actually marked in the game. So, we often use criteria. I was talking about guidelines and how we designed the guidelines because the challenge, constraints, and criteria.

Criteria is by clearly articulating what constitutes success. We don't know what the solution is, but we know what the desirable outcomes would be. I would argue the opposite that so much of the time outside of a game context we haven't articulated what we need to be doing. Yeah. We want to make more money or have more customers or get more hits on social media. But how do you know when you reach more?

A great game will be very clear about what constitutes success on the front end without prescribing the solution. And there are actually two ways to write up criteria. One is with a shortlist and the other is with a long list.

So, the idea of a short list is to say, you must keep all the constraints in mind. You must solve this problem. But to be really successful, you achieve this criteria? And so, you'll have some way to measure it. A long list, the idea is sometimes what usually will have in a short list. It'd be like three or four or five at the most criteria items. Like bullet points that are very easy to understand.

And a long list you might have 10 or 20. Or 30 different criteria. And the idea is to hit as many of them as possible. So, in a well-designed game, you actually know how successful you've been at the end, because you've already defined that before playing it.

Brian Ardinger: That's very good. We're living in a hybrid world now. Obviously with, folks going back into the office and that. But a lot of these types of techniques and that, there's an advantage to doing them face-to-face and that. What's been your experience and how to use these techniques in a more of a hybrid world. Or in a world where we can't be face to face.

David Cutler: You know I'm an innovator to my core. I am nowhere nearly as creative as COVID 19. You know, I never imagined a world in which we had to be 6 to 12 feet apart. We'd be wearing these masks and the likes. And I view it, of course, it's been hard on all of us. And had very, very serious consequences. But I view it as a worthy adversary.

I have this viewpoint that when you hit a wall, when something goes wrong, how can you have it help you come up with even better solutions right then if you didn't have that obstacle that was there. And so that's been my whole perspective throughout COVID. How can this make us better?

Obviously, there are benefits to be online as well as deficits, but that's tricky because so much of what we do is, you know, very tactile and the likes. So, we started really leaning into, especially Zoom is the platform that we've used the most. And it doesn't do anything. We played a game, and it was for about 50 people. We had six teams that were on there and of course, one of the things that's great about Zoom is when you're in breakout rooms, everyone can come back and at the same moment everyone's back.

So, it takes them a little longer to go into their own room than if they were just sitting at a table. But if you're in a physical space at the end, you have to get people's attention two or three times. But on Zoom, it's just like, boom. They're back. So, I remember hearing afterwards from people who went there. And it was just amazing.

We wanted to show them, how do you make Zoom exciting? How do you make it work? Cause it's just, it's not inherently good or bad. It's just different. It's just a tool. And I think what happened when we went online, unfortunately, is that so many organizations, what they did was they took the worst parts of in-person, like the lecture, and brought it online. While losing some of the best parts, like the ability to interact and have side conversations. And the likes instead of, you know, saying what can this tool uniquely do?

So afterwards, some of the people on this game would call us up and they would say, yeah, so I was talking to some friends, and I said, what did you do this weekend? And yeah, I just got off an innovation game. We played; it was six hours long on Zoom. People like what six hours. That's crazy. That's ridiculous. How was that? Like, it was amazing. You know, we got so much achieved. More than I did all of six months before that. But we spent a lot of time.

We didn't have any solutions, you know, with a good game, you don't know what the actual solutions will be. You just designed in such a way that great solutions are almost guaranteed because of the kinds of questions that are. But we had to think about, you know, in a room when there's a question, someone can raise their hand and you can go over, and you can clarify that's trickier on breakout rooms in Zoom.

So, we had to figure out a system so that we would type up documents ahead of time. So, they always knew what the task was and how many minutes they had. Had that kind of clarity because there's no, you know, front white board, it was amazing though.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: David, I really appreciate you coming on Inside Outside Innovation to kind of share some of this stuff. I encourage people to pick up the book if they are at all interested in innovation and some really tactical ways to make some progress. So, the book is called The Game of Innovation. I encourage people to pick it up. If people want to find out more about yourself, David, or about the book, what's the best way to do that.

David Cutler: The easiest address I can give is www.Puzzlercompany.com/book. And that way you'll find out information. There's a trailer for the book and some sample pages and a whole bunch of other information about solving problems with your team.

Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Well, David, again, thanks for being on the show. Looking forward to continuing the conversation in the future.

David Cutler: Thanks so much Brian.

Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.


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