Posted by Tom Grant on May 19, 2011
I'm a dedicated podcast listener, and one of my current favorites is the BBC's In Our Time. The host, Melvyn Bragg, selects a bewildering array of topics, such as Daoism, the Battle of Bannockburn, random numbers, the medieval university, and metaphor. A recent episode about the Industrial Revolution unexpectedly and unintentionally turned into a very lively discussion about the sources of invention, a topic that's near and dear to application development and delivery professionals.
Here's the punch line to this discussion: Not everyone's brain is ready to conjure up new ideas, so you need a catalyst. And here's the connection to this blog: serious games can be that catalyst. Our brains regularly need to be shaken up this way, during both those magisterial moments when we're trying to look over the horizon and the more desperate moments when, as I discuss in a new study, we need to dig ourselves out of a hole.
In the middle of the episode of In Our Time in question, Bragg interrupted one of his guests, Professor Pat Hudson, to challenge her "grand historical" explanation of why Great Britain led the Industrial Revolution. Bragg often interrupts his guests when he feels it's necessary, which is another reason beyond his dazzling eclecticism why I like him. (And why I hate hosts or moderators who think it's their job to let guests make unsupported or incorrect statements, or stray far off topic, without challenge.) Grand historical factors, such as the availability of coal in the British Isles or the government's trade policies, certainly played an important part in this story. While we might debate why there wasn't a German, French, or Italian counterpart of these inventors (and boy, did Bragg and Hudson argue over that), the fact remains.
Continental Europe certainly had a big share of the world's scientists, but applied knowledge was what really got the Industrial Revolution going. To look at that fact in another way, it's not enough to be smart. You also have to be focused on the right kind of problem, and you need to be inspired to look at that problem in a new way.
While there are many use cases for serious games, this type of inspiration is definitely what many app dev teams need. Sometimes, they get into mental ruts. Other times, they face nasty, unexpected conundrums with no obvious or easy solution. Even in very productive teams, the pace and amount of work can crowd out the time needed to think of new approaches.
Stepping outside these circumstances for a moment is the best way to find inspiration. However, just staring at the white board isn't necessarily going to help, either. Teams need these momentary pauses to be structured in ways that encourage focus on the right problems, and then find that spark of inspiration that our busy, tired brains can't always ignite on their own.
And this is why an increasing number of app dev teams are using serious games. The study that we just published on this topic provides some details on how to apply them in tough circumstances. For example, one company I interviewed used the Product Box game to guide critical prioritization decisions for the rewrite of an aging application.
We'd all like to be great inventors, in big ways that rock the world or in smaller ones that just make tomorrow's work a little easier and more satisfying. The equivalent of grand historical, contextual factors can't be denied. That's why we analysts talk as much as we do about Agile, Lean, high-performance teams, automated testing, and other developments in application development and delivery. Without good tools, you'll never turn that idea into reality. However, the idea still has to come from somewhere.