What’s in a game? ….. well quite a lot it seems!

I recently had the opportunity to facilitate the?Toothpick Teaser? game from Sweeney and Meadows ?The Systems Thinking Playbook?? (2010) with a team from an after hours emergency veterinary centre. I have been fascinated with how the learnings from a simple game seem to have on a life of their own and are now challenging the way the organisation perceives itself and how it believes it is being perceived by its clients.

The game is set up as follows:

Number of people required:? Any number will work. For larger groups of 15 or more it may be preferable to have participants working in pairs.

Time: Approximately 2 minutes to explain, 5 to 10 minutes to complete

Equipment: 6 toothpicks or matches per person/pair

Space: Floor or table on which to place he toothpicks/matches

Instructions: Place a box of toothpicks within reach of of each participants.? Ask each participant to take 6 toothpicks and lay them flat on the table (or floor). Using all 6 toothpicks ask the participants to create 4 EQUAL sided triangles.

Possible Solution: One solution requires the person to think ?outside the box? and to break out of the one dimensional mode: Lay 3 toothpicks flat on the table to make 1 equal sided triangle. Use the remaining 3 toothpicks to create 3 new equal sided triangles by building a teepee-like structure.

Debrief:? Participants are ?set up? to a degree by using the phrase ?lay the toothpicks flat on the table?, as the solution requires them to think in a multi-dimensional way. So part of the problem in participants easily arriving at the solution is the way the problem is presented. However, another major obstacle are the assumptions that participants make regarding how the problem can be solved:? They were told to lay the picks flat on the table, however they were not told that the solution had to be ?flat?.

In facilitating this game with the team, as soon as hints were given e.g. ?Try looking at it from another perspective? or ?How might adding another dimension change what the solution could look like? the participants quickly arrived at the solution.

The post activity debriefing was very interesting: After initial comments of ?ripped off? and the like, after explaining how the group had been ?set up? by the use of the word ?flat?, the conversation began to explore how the activity highlighted the assumptions we bring to our meaning making and how the words we use either challenge, or support these assumptions. The group started to explore how the words they were using in their daily conversations could be perpetuating assumptions and exploring whether they were making the same meaning of words, and their implicit assumptions, as those they were conversing with.

One of the continual ?hot topics? of conversation within the organisation is that of fees, and the gap between client expectations of what ?reasonable? fees constitute and those of the organisation. The group began, and in subsequent conversation has continued, to explore how they may be potentially co-creating this gap with the words they use in their conversations with clients. In particular,? the group considered whether clients were perceiving the organisation as a general practice that operated outside of normal practice hours, rather than as a specialist emergency centre. If this was the case, then clients expectations of fees may well be influenced by the fees they would pay their general practitioner vet with an expectation of a ?mark up? to cover after hours service. The group explored how introducing the senior clinician as the ?vet?, the triage nurse as ?the nurse? and the emphasis in the organisation?s literature on ?after hours care? might be contributing to a potential misunderstanding of the organisation?s purpose as a specialist emergency centre, rather than a ?normal? veterinary practice with extended hours.

As mentioned, the conversation is ongoing with consideration being given to changing the way in which staff are introduced - for example ?Specialist? instead of ?vet?, ?triage and emergency nurses? instead of ?nurse? and looking anew at how future organisational literature might be written to better communicate the organisation?s unique purpose.

Of course, no one can predict whether these actions will have any impact at all on creating better shared understanding between the organisation and it?s clients regarding fees. However, I find it intriguing that a simple game has initiated an organisational conversation in which the participants are now examining in some depth how they make meaning, and how other are making meaning of them. There also is an emerging understanding that the words we use in our conversations and the assumptions we apply to those words can either open up, or close down, the opportunity to develop shared understanding with those with whom we interact.

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