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Board Games and Management Skills

Imagine you are screening candidates for a senior executive position. The job demands strategic thinking abilities and complex decision-making skills. You’ve narrowed the search down to 3 candidates, all of whom have impressive educational background, relevant experience and the right personality for the job. You take another look at their resumes and notice an interesting fact about one of the prospective managers – apparently her hobby is playing various board games including Chess, Bridge, and Go (an ancient and complex Japanese game). Will this fact affect who you ultimately choose for the position of manager?

Apparently, characteristics and skills that are required for playing board games are especially relevant for managers of all levels. Quite a few senior managers say that the skills and habits they acquired in playing games give them an extra edge in business and in management. This includes handling fast changes, taking calculated risks, self-discipline, improved memory, "coolness" under pressure, and determination to carry-through the right strategy – even if it leads to short-term loss.

According to different managers, each game has a distinct focus on skills that stem from the nature of the game. Thus, for instance, Backgammon increases the ability to quickly and intuitively calculate odds and risks in situations of uncertainty; The game of cards – Bridge – develops social interaction and communication based on partial information; Chess requires strategic thinking and system vision, as well as experience in exploiting tactical patterns and opportunities.

The skills needed for playing games are not only cognitive. The basic setting of games requires the ability to operate while involved in intense competitive social interaction, with alternating moments of cooperation and confrontation. Obviously, similar skills are needed in the daily functions of people in general and of managers in particular. Improving these skills is a great part of the learning and training managers need to undertake.

Managers Play to Train and Learn

With the abovementioned similarity of the skills required in board games and those required of managers, it is almost natural that board games have indeed become a powerful management training tool. The subjects that may be addressed with this type of learning are diverse, and include effective decision-making, problem-solving techniques, development of creative thinking, improved personal communication, synergetic teamwork, work under pressure, and more.

Games such as Chess, Go and Bridge usually require more than a basic understanding and quite a long period of learning in order to reach a level that enables significant practical management learning. However, there is a large number of games with simpler rules, that may be understood in minutes, and can still be used as powerful learning tools. Examples of such games are included in the second part of this article.

Using this unconventional method of management training carries several advantages:

A. Exposing Patterns of Thinking and Action
As managers play different board games, their patterns of thinking and action, as well as the results of those actions, are brought to the surface. This makes it possible to analyze these habits and point out group tendencies as well. Thus, for instance, a tendency to make decisions based on partial information and without dialogue may lead to grave result in the game, teaching the manager that he needs to improve his communication skills in the game and in life.

B. Real-time Feedback
The link between action and its results in games is almost instant. This makes it possible to examine in real-time the results of using thinking tools and structured patterns of action and behavior, A team that has to solve a game problem quickly and effectively, can learn to use problem-solving techniques and see their immediate effect. In addition, team members may evaluate the personal qualities each of them brings into problem-solving situations, and train in using those abilities in game and life processes.

C. Personal, Team & Group Learning
Training managers through board games simultaneously works on personal skills, small team and large group interaction. Game situations may be planned and built so that learning is focused on personal learning (even through one-on-one coaching), team interaction (two pairs playing against one another, and required to make unanimous decisions), or group aspects (presenting a game position on a screen and holding a discussion on the recommended course of action). This kind of flexibility lets us achieve a variety of learning goals on all levels.

D. Powerful Emotional Learning
Most of the subjects learned through board can certainly be presented in other, more conventional, ways. An added advantage of using board games is the strong emotional involvement of the participants. The cognitive challenges, the state of competition, the hands-on approach all contribute to greater awareness, openness to change and to fun and interest in the learning process.

Plato summarized these principles of learning in the following quote:

"You can discover more about a person in an hour of play
than in a year of conversation"

Continue to part 2 of the article:
See examples of Management Training Games and their uses

This Business article was written by Amir Elion on 5/9/2006

Amir Elion is a management and innovation consultant and facilitator. He was a part of a group that developed a unique method for training diverse skills through the use of board games. He has a degree in Philosophy and General studies and an MA in organizational behavior. His website is a constantly growing source of creative ideas for business, workplace and personal uses.