Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dungeons & Dragons and role playing games for Leaders

Last week Dave Arneson, the man who alongside Gary Gygax created Dungeons & Dragons, passed away at 61. As a young adult I spent more time then I would like to admit learning and playing the rules of this RPG (role playing game) classic. It occured to me last week as I thought about those days, that I had been secretly incorporating the rules of the Dungeon into my leadership style ever since.

You can only be one kind of hero
Arneson believed you can only be one kind of hero. The D&D player character sheet has several different sections to describe a character and their abilities each of is initially scored and decided by the roll of a die. Based on the variety of attribute scores, Ability Scores, Defenses, Hit Points, Reactions, Defenses, and Skills, a player can then decide whether they would be better suited as a Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric, or Thief. Your staff has the same basic set up. They have a role, are suited to a task, and come with additional factors which may serve, or hurt, them depending on the specifics of thei situation.

Leaders treat everyone as an individual - with their own set of skills, knowledge and experience. It’s easy to see who can carry the load of the job description. Usually folks are in their job because they can do it. It takes time and observation to determine who is great under pressure, who handles customers best, and who can sell any idea to anyone. I have a grid of skills that are important to the work that I do and I rate the team against those skills - are they good at Presenting? Can they use Photoshop? Have they ever influenced sales? Can they manage a project?

I keep my list to myself - experience has taught me that considering the corporate staples of job performance, quarterly reviews, one on ones, and other employee management systems we are bound to, they just don’t want to have the pressure of another one. But here’s where the D&D Player Character sheet is useful - targeting areas for growth.

As a leader you are measured by the results you can produced. This directly correlates to your people and their ability to perform the tasks needed to achieve those results. In taking the time to develop your list of skill priorities - as they relate to your job - you can manage your team towards developing those abilities. Or you can recognize those who excel in certain aspects. And you can easily determine who may just not fit - and manage them accordingly.

With adventure comes experience and power
For me, every day in the office is like playing a different D&D adventure. Every day there are new challenges. Some times the challenge is to perform - to meet a deadline, to land a client, to negotiate a win. Other days are zen challenges - to look in the face of something daunting and to see something great, to make a difference. But with each day, with each adventure, you and your team can walk away with skills, attitudes, and learnings. These experiences are essential to growth.

A few years ago I hired a contractor on one of my teams and she was an incredible designer. She created intricate and beautiful designs with ease, and this quickly gained senior leaderships attention. She was also extremely shy. Being asked to stand up and be recognized for her efforts at a quarterly meeting almost caused her to pass out. Noting this on her, “Player Character sheet,” I created an opportunity in her team meeting - a small group setting of six people - to present her technique. I assumed this would be a non-threatening way for her to speak in front of a team she is familiar with and gain experience in presenting. As assumptions some times go, it didn’t go well. She flustered, stammered, and finally walked away unable to present. I brought her aside and coached her, asking if this is something she wanted, encouraging her to take this as a growth experience and to determine, for herself, if this is something she wanted. I’m pleased to say she came back a few days later asking for the chance to speak again, and she did a great job. She has been improving by leaps and bounds ever since.

Presenting challenges creates the adventure for your staff. And with each outcome comes experience that allows your team the opportunity to grow and succeed.

Choose your party carefully
In your RPG party, the mix of characters is important. Having a party full of Fighters is great when in battle, but if you forgot to bring along a Cleric or Magic-User to heal them when things aren’t going so well...can lead to a bunch of dead Fighters. The same is true with your staff. Focusing too heavily on one area - let’s say execution - will do very little for you if you don’t have someone on staff scheduling the work, balancing the load, or managing the deliverables. Cross-training your team to be able to fill in to key functions is essential to ensuring that work continues to move smoothly when someone calls out sick, the workload is high, or when the unforeseen occurs.

Personality matters
During the adventure, things often happen that you never expect. Based on your characters alignment - how they operate in the world - can significantly affect the outcome. If you are suddenly descended upon by a horde of Orcs do you fight, negotiate, or try to run? Sure, knowing the members of your team you’ll likely know who the right person for each task is - and this will get you through 80% of your adventure. But this can’t be your only rule for play. Sometimes, the unexpected happens. Knowing how your team will respond and how they address certain situations allows you to create opportunities. Use these times to your party’s best advantage and let folks shine. And that is a winning plan both in and out of the Dungeon.

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