Computer games psychology broadens mindsets

Building a culture of innovation using computer gaming approaches to elicit creative ideas from within is not the sort of activity you'd normally expect in a giant central government department. But that's what David Cotterill, Deputy Director...

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Building a culture of innovation using computer gaming approaches to elicit creative ideas from within is not the sort of activity you'd normally expect in a giant central government department.

But that's what David Cotterill, Deputy Director of Innovation at the UK's Department of Works and Pensions, described to a conference of CIOs at the recent Richmond Events IT Directors' Forum.

Using Games Psychology
Deploying computer games psychology was the key to collecting 1,500 innovative ideas of which 68 generated £20m savings for the Department, he said. He stressed to the CIO delegates (several of whom were designing staff incentive schemes) that culture is far more important in stimulating innovative ideas than process or financial reward.

“Building innovation capability is a multi-year journey,” he said. “It doesn't happen just because you give someone an innovation title.”

He said that staff have to want to take part and be motivated in the way that computer games enthusiasts are motivated to spend hours at a time in games such as World of Warcraft, or to spend large amounts of time building huge wiki knowledge bases.

Dynamic appointments, for example, is one technique computer games use to attract and retain players. That is where gamers are asked to show up at a particular place at a particular time to gain a reward. Other techniques include influence/status dynamics (where no-one is excluded if they don't make a grade, but are encouraged to keep trying till they do), and “progression dynamics” (gaining acknowledgement of moving up a grade by devices such as progress bars, or, as in the case of World of Warcraft, with different costumes.

Voyage of Communal Discovery
With dynamics such as these at front of mind Cotterill set out on a “voyage of communal discovery” within the DWP.

The voyage, in a programme called “Idea Street” , started with gathering 100 people in a room to crowd source on IT strategy. That flushed the more radical elements out and began the process of engagement.

That was in parallel with a communal challenge through a “seed camp” - asking the top 200 people in IT for ideas most likely to deliver short pay-back returns. Those ideas were narrowed to three, which were progressed to projects.

Building a Community of Innovators

Cotterill then proceeded to build a community of innovators, targeting in particular three groups: frontline staff, new hires, and IT support. In an 8-month pilot the innovation process was turned into a game, assigning a virtual currency to ideas and launching them on an internal “stock market”. The share price fluctuated according to buy-in.

“Initially people were seduced by sexy ideas that sounded good,” he said, “but they realised they needed ones with the highest chance of being implemented.” He added that this process gave staff an understanding of what it takes in terms of support and building a business case.

Cotterill stimulated a barrage of questions from delegates relating to resourcing, managing, policing, and integrating his approach.

“There are three fundamental question you should ask,” he said, acknowledging his former colleague James Gardner: “can we do it? - should we do it? - and, when do we do it?”

He held that success depended on understanding your strategy of innovation; being realistic about your capability; and building the culture. “Build the culture and the rest follows,” he said.

Cotterill has demonstrated how there is usually a vast well of untapped creativity locked within the structures of large organisations and that significant savings can be made by finding creative ways of unleashing them.

Elements of that process have been drawn into the current UK Cabinet Office's “Innovation Launchpad” exercise to seek out external innovation.

That’ll be the subject of a future posting!

* Searching for success: I'm always looking for practical case examples showing how innovative companies have successfully broken through generic barriers into large enterprises or government. Please point me to good examples you know! Thanks!