Mingwei Gu

writings on business, meditation, technology, markets, sci-fi, organizations

22 Sep 2020

How role-playing can level up your team at work

My friend recently started hosting a weekly Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) game. As the Game Master (or Dungeon Master), he has to prepare scenarios each week, he has to improvise to react to what we players do, and of course he has to keep us players entertained and challenged.

I’m starting to think those same Game Master skills would make someone great at organizing and running employee training games. And it’d be way more engaging as a new employee to have more training games to replace lectures, readings, or ad-hoc learning.

What is D&D and table top roleplaying?

If you haven’t heard of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), I’ll defer to Wikipedia:

D&D … allow[s] each player to create their own character to play … . These characters embark upon imaginary adventures within a fantasy setting. A Dungeon Master (DM) serves as the game’s referee and storyteller, while maintaining the setting in which the adventures occur, and playing the role of the inhabitants of the game world. The characters form a party and they interact with the setting’s inhabitants and each other. Together they solve dilemmas, engage in battles, explore, and gather treasure and knowledge. In the process, the characters earn experience points (XP) in order to rise in levels, and become increasingly powerful over a series of separate gaming sessions

But what do role playing games have to do with workplace skills?

Role playing in MBA programs

Look no further than business schools to see how role playing helps with teaching business skills.

Many MBA graduates I’ve spoken with rank their negotiations course as one of their most valuable classroom experiences. Students form teams and take on the role of a negotiating party – a union in a labor dispute, a corporation buying out another corporation, a country looking to sell drilling rights. As a team, they form a strategy and then duke it out with the opposing side.

Writing the cases and organizing the course clearly takes a lot of time. But it created positive experiences for many that took the course!

Role playing in the workplace

Several teams at my previous employer put on training games to level up their skills.

New salespeople had to do mock sales calls with more tenured salespeople, who took on the role of the prospect. Based on their experience, the more tenured salesperson throws a wide variety of scenarios at the new salesperson. The new salesperson practices how to ask discovery questions, how to pitch, and how to close. And most crucially, when to push harder and when to back off. The more tenured salesperson gives detailed feedback for them to improve. All without taking up valuable prospect time.

Data analysts had a similar exercise. A seasoned analyst identifies a past quality control issue and prepares a case for a group of other data analysts to read and digest. Then, analysts form teams to tackle the issue and design fixes. At the end, the teams present their findings to the whole group.

Both training games helped employees with less experience to make big choices without it adversely affecting the business. People learn through doing.

Getting started with your team

You can run one of these role playing games for your team at work!

First, you need to isolate an important skill that makes someone successful on your team. Is it negotiations as in the MBA example? Or perhaps it’s interviewing skills or team communication.

Afterwards, design one or more scenarios that would test and strengthen those skills. You might need help from others to come up with good scenarios.

Next, you’ll need to come up with the rules of engagement. They should be simple enough for a new person but realistic enough to teach that person something about the real work.

It’s not easy to come up with a training game for your team, but I do think having Game Master experience can help!

Game Master skills can help

As a Game Master, you have to think through the scenarios that will test your players’ skills. And you have to be imaginative enough to think of how players might act. And you have to improvise on the spot if they veer from your plan.

What’s more, you have to be entertaining so your players don’t get bored and quit.

Parting thoughts

Next time you’re thinking about training your team, consider a role-playing game rather than more lectures or books.

Maybe pick up some D&D rulebooks and host a game so you can design a game yourself!

Or if you’re looking for someone to drive the next training initiative, maybe ask around to see if anyone’s already a Game Master.