Back to Library
Open Book Management

Meaningful Games at Work

In this first of a two-part series, we address how playing games can help achieve business goals. The next article, Ten Steps to Designing a Great Game, will tell you how to design an effective game for your business.

People always give me a funny look when I tell them that we like to play games at work.

The games we play at Zingerman’s are not what you think. While they can be as much fun as baseball, bowling or bocce ball, the point of these contests is simply to get better business results. Granted, games sound like something extracurricular and silly—and business is serious stuff. But you can make life at work a lot more fun by bringing games into everyday activities, using them to improve the quality of food, service, workplace, finance or anything else that you do.

Games have helped us improve results for a number of years. We were inspired by the folks at the Great Game of Business ( They initiated the idea of approaching business overall as a “game, one with rules and in which you keep score and can win when you do well. (If you want to read an excellent book this fall, pick up Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham’s The Great Game of Business.)

Proactive and Planned

I’m not a natural game player; I did not participate in team athletics as a kid and am more of a loner than a group-activity person. Also, I’ve listened to many people who don’t like using the word “game at work because they think it makes light of things. But I decided many years ago that not liking to “play games was my problem, and that most people actually enjoy the fun of it.

In a nutshell, a “game at work is any organized, proactive, promoted and well-planned attempt to encourage people within the business to get better results. Games can go for merely a day, or as long as one year. They can yield big financial returns or can just be fun with minor immediate improvements in bottom line results. Games can involve small departments of three or four, or hundreds of people in an organization.

To start a game, we pick a problem we want to overcome or a result we’re going after, and then set a target to measure our success against. We devise a way to have everyone win when the goal is hit. We create rules for how the game will be played and how we will keep score. And then we do it—we play the game. And hopefully, though not always, we win.

Why Run Games?

Ultimately, to make improvements—the more progress we make, the better the business runs. The games help us achieve this because:

a) They focus the staff on a common and important goal for a specified period of time.

b) They help staff members learn to pull together to reach an agreed upon goal.

While teaching teamwork is a great thing, our experience is that people quickly go back to their old ways soon after that training is over. On the other hand, when people learn to pull together and win, they stay with the team skills much longer. You generally cannot win without people overcoming the usual day-to-day conflicts and disconnections that typically get in the way.

c) Winning teams like to keep winning.

You can assure a positive, “winning future by building a team of people who like to win. You hear it over and over again in sports—players who are used to losing are just too quick to continue losing. By contrast, those accustomed to winning like the feeling it brings. It’s much more fun and the results—both emotionally and financially—are better for all involved. The more people win, the more they want to win. Not in a greedy or obnoxious way, but simply because winning feels a lot better than losing.

d) Games teach us the pain of losing—a pain we don’t like.

Losing is not much fun. Yet almost all teams with a long-term tradition of winning endured some losing first. It’s a drag—but the team learns. And you learn a lot about your team in the process. The people who don’t engage, the people who point fingers; ultimately, you don’t want them on the team.

e) We get to share the winnings.

When the team wins, every individual wins as well. The organization is better off. When that happens, it also means that (in a well-designed game) the customers are winning, too.

f) People feel they earned it.

There is nothing wrong with the “Nice job this month, here’s $100 type of bonus. But a prime benefit of games played in the open with rules defined up front and scores posted regularly is that people feel like they’ve earned the success. That’s a feeling to encourage.

The 6 Cs in Game Development

Here are “6 Cs that keep me organized. Business games should be:

1) Considered

What area of performance do you want to reward? Can you explain to staff why you’ve chosen this area? (If not, consider another focus.) When we share why we’ve picked the target, we help the crew learn to think like business people, a great benefit going forward. People are more likely to get excited about the game and play hard to win.

2) Calculable

Anyone playing the game should be able to see how we’re doing; any staff member should be able to calculate on their own whether they will get a bonus or not. Every effective game has an easily identifiable, accessible scoreboard on which the participants can see how they’re doing. Games do not work well when the staff has to find the manager to see how things are going. (Imagine a basketball team that had to call the coach on her cell phone during timeouts to see how they were performing.)

3) Calendar Constrained

Games can be as short as a day or as long as a year but, in order to keep them fresh, all have clear end points. Without a finish line or a time constraint, the games lose their urgency and participants lose the sense of being part of a one-time opportunity. You can always renew them if you choose, but we must avoid encouraging the sense of entitlement that so often comes with any bonus or game that runs indefinitely.

4) Clear

It’s essential to get clarity on game rules, participants, winnings, timing, etc. up front. Lack of clarity before the game begins always leads to trouble once it’s underway. A good way to make sure it is clearly defined is to explain it to people who might be playing and get their input. It also is wise to show the draft to someone with a good head for finance so they can double check your math and make sure you are not unintentionally giving away the store (literally or figuratively).

5) inClusive

Good games should include as many people as possible. A relatively new staffer should be able to participate as an equal with someone who’s been working there for years, or who might be two rungs up the organizational chart. We almost exclusively do group games—to encourage the teamwork. We usually set a goal for one target, one group, one win (or one loss). When the entire team focuses on a single goal, they will self-organize to figure out how to attain it. In the process, they learn to work together more effectively. That skill is not forgotten when the game ends; the positive part of the togetherness builds teamwork long afterwards.

6) Creative

This should all be fun (in a serious business way). So go wild and enjoy. To keep things fresh, I try not to repeat games we’ve done in the past. Get people brainstorming so that you can do creative things. The staff enjoys getting involved and usually does a fantastic job. Important creative elements include: Picking a good name for the game. Basically, the game is a “product that we sell to the staff. Products with appealing, easily memorable names sell better than those without. Merchandising the game effectively. A beautifully designed game with no merchandising will be as unlikely to succeed as a great-tasting product that gets poor shelf placement and little staff attention. Devising eye-catching, brain-catching, creative scoreboards where everyone can quickly see how the team is doing.

Over the past ten years, games have helped us improve results in almost every area of our business. So try one or two simple ones to get the concept started in your business. Have fun!