Using Collaborative Games to Uncover Dysfunctional Board Dynamics

 

Board meeting

My mediation practice, like that of many colleagues, takes place in varied contexts. Mediation can look quite different in each of these contexts. One area which I find requires considerable flexibility of process is when working with a Board of Directors. As a mediator, I am usually called in to help a Board deal with inefficiency rather than overt conflict.  There is often a shared sense among Directors that the group is unable to get important things done, or perhaps there is a general tension and discomfort rather than a notable point of conflict.  Such Boards tend to have a number of symptoms of underlying dysfunction like high turnover, low meeting attendance, lack of enthusiasm, or difficulty getting decisions made.  This small set of common symptoms may signal any of a  number of possible underlying dynamics.  And, of course, there are also a huge number of possible responses and approaches to improving those dynamics.

I recently had the opportunity to explore a new tool in assisting a Board of Directors to improve a number of challenges in their working process. Prior to my engagement, the following dynamics impacted this particular Board:

  • Members were too similar, which limited ideas and possibilities
  • There was an unknown skills gap, where 2 essential group roles were unfilled
  • Unspoken assumptions had led to confusion, lack of clarity and distrust
  • Members lacked the skills to use diversity to their advantage
  • There was pressure for Members to conform to organisational culture
  • Meeting formats disadvantaged introverted Members

When I was first approached by this group, I suggested using Zombie Fight or Flight, a collaborative card game I was involved in developing through PignPotato Games.  The Board was very hesitant at first, unsure if the Members would be willing to engage, but they were stuck and open to trying something new.  It turned out that Members were happy to hear that a group game would be used to elicit discussion instead of 1-on-1 private meetings with each Board Member.

Teaching and playing Zombie Fight or Flight to a group for the first time takes about 30 minutes. In our 2-hour session this allowed us 1.5 hours to debrief, discuss and explore dynamics surfaced in the game.  The initial focus on the game created a safe way for the group to start discussing dynamics that arose in game play and then apply those dynamics back to the harder space of their Board interactions.  Insights into differences in communication styles and values surfaced in the game were easily discussed in the context of a card game — this lowered the risk of then discussing how these dynamics impact their group work.  The game gave this Board an accessible, shared language to explore some controversial and difficult subjects in a safe environment.

As a conflict resolution practitioner, the most exciting piece of this session was how quickly the group got to deep and significant conversation.  What often takes many hours (including many facilitator hours spent in individual meetings), moved more smoothly into challenging topic areas within a single session, and with greater participation from the entire group.  Members were able to see how their own actions and behaviours impacted other Members, and gained significant insights into their colleagues’ perspectives, allowing for real teamwork and constructive disagreements.

During our second session, the group’s goal was to figure out some possible solutions to the dynamics we had uncovered. One of the previously difficult and disengaged Members suggested we open with a few rounds of Zombie Fight or Flight  to remind us of what we had learned.  This set up the group up for an incredibly productive meeting where they revamped many of their policies, changed the structure of their meetings, and made their first consensus decision in 2 years.  While it is too early to know how effective this intervention will be in the long run, the Board’s last 2 meetings have had higher attendance and more enthusiasm than the previous year of meetings.

In conversation with some of the Members afterwards, they noted that they were able to behave less guardedly within the game context because they felt they didn’t have to take big personal or social risks to participate.  This allowed Members to be more open and engaged in an environment that is often highly competitive, and in which risk-taking is often met with ridicule.  Members were able to explore (and practice) some of the skills necessary to collaborate in a group and note personal skill gaps as well as group skill gaps without feeling overly vulnerable.  They were excited and empowered to move forward with the hard work of implementing their solutions.

My experience in using Zombie Fight or Flight as a tool for working with Boards may well be transferable to other similar organisations, whether workplaces, sports teams, clubs, or any of the many organisations that rely heavily upon volunteer engagement. My colleagues at PignPotato Games and I are excited about the possibilities! So much so that we are holding a Game Jam on May 5-7, 2017 to create another collaborative game to increase the number of tools available to mediators and facilitators. If you’re intrigued by the idea, consider joining us.

Article by Amanda Semenoff; republished with permission. 

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Author: pignpotato

PignPotato Games is a group of mediators, lawyers and creatives sharing a desire to change how conflict resolution and collaboration are learned in homes, schools and businesses. PignPotato Games produces games that are collaborative, fun and challenging.

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