11. November 2021

«In a complex world, control is an illusion»

Today, I am excited to meet Wolfgang Rathert, Managing Director and Owner of Pik AG, Zurich, Switzerland, specialized in Game Based Design. Wolfgang is a longtime and highly-appreciated colleague of mine, engaging particularly in the advancement of the field of Human Resource Management and People Development by unleashing the potentials of digitalization through a Gamification-Perspective. He is my personal “trend spotter” for grasping new trends and ideas that are inspiring the advancement of the Human Resources Management and Development field. Above all, he is a role model in trusting in the intelligence of people, thinking in terms of positive opportunities, and generously connecting people together. In this interview he reflects on one of his newest trendsetting ideas: the potential of game-design for bidding processes, vendor management and procurement in general, challenging the old story of company-supplier relationships.

Wolfgang, first of all thank you so much for taking the time for this Human Facts meets. Before we go deep: Why do you see so much potential for “Gamification” in Business and what in essence does it mean to you?

Wolfgang: Eva, it's a real pleasure and big honor to be invited to contribute to your “Human Facts meets” series! I always read what you publish, as it is always thoroughly researched and filled with interesting insights and inspiration from high-profile experts. I consider it a real privilege to join the ranks of your interview partners!

"Games" and "Business" have much more in common than one might think at first glance. Just think about the fact that game designers manage to create behavioral patterns in their audiences that are also in high demand by most businesses. Who would not want their employees to be highly motivated and creative, to collaborate and master challenges, to be resilient and act strategically to reach "the next level?"

Games create high levels of engagement while performing a rather meaningless task. For this effect the CONTEXT of the activity is responsible, not the content of the task as such. That means, a Game Designer is a "Context Designer," inspiring the behavior and emotional states of high engagement through the context. This is important for two reasons:
1) Using the context to inspire engagement allows us to remove the bottleneck of a "charismatic / heroic leader" and make leadership "scalable"
2) Engagement is required in complex organizational environments, both for leaders and employees: Leaders would like to inspire engagement, not only compliance, and every member of a team or an organization would like to feel committed and voluntarily engaged.

Is it appropriate to “reduce” our current business issues - to a “play” logic? Or in other words: How do you make sure that managers and employees understand this concept constructively?

Wolfgang: True, there are strong cultural biases towards a separation of "serious" (= valuable) and "hedonic" (not valuable) activities. In German, this is proverbial "Spass" vs. "Ernst". On top, our society (and the domain of business in particular, probably with the exception of marketing when focusing on "customer experience") suffers from a severe case of "emotional dyslexia."

From a psychological point of view, of course, this opposition does not exist. On the contrary, "Fun" should be regarded as the "psychological response to a human need being met." In everyday language, we only refer to this positive emotional response as "fun" if our need for autonomy, control, creativity, curiosity, is being met. But of course, these are not the only needs we can have. We also feel positive emotions if any of our other intrinsic motivations like competence (feeling proud or effective) or relatedness (feeling connected, respect(ed), love(d)) is being addressed. Or if we can contribute to something of value for us, the famous "purpose."

Even businesses embrace more and more that feeling of a sense of connection to our personal, social or universal identity, which makes us feel meaningful and important. In this sense, designing for "fun" is at the core of all human-centered design.

Having said that: I am by no means suggesting – I do actually advise against – to turn anything into a game or play. There is no "reduction" of a "serious" category like business to some other (and inferior) level taking place. On the contrary, what I suggest is an enrichment of the context of "serious" activities by adding game design ELEMENTS that make participation more pleasurable.

"Games" are simply an ideal domain to look at when searching how to create great engagement and learning experiences: Evidence shows that game designers are THE experts in applying elements like storytelling, feedback systems, interaction design, and insights from behavioral economics to create high engagement levels and positive emotional states.

What business processes would in your eyes profit from a “Gamification” Perspective and with what kind of impact?

Wolfgang: "Gamification" is useful either if you want to create Compliance, or if you want to create engagement. Every process that requires one of these behaviors will benefit from a gamification perspective.

If done right, the impact is a higher level of performance of the target group (employees, customers, patients, or other agents in the process at hand), combined with a simultaneous higher level of experienced need satisfaction.

For organizations and managers dealing with complexity - the so called "VUCA environments" - there is an additional twist that makes gamification especially interesting: A core element of complex tasks and situations is the impossibility to completely control the system. Because tackling the "unknown unknowns" requires decentralized and distributed action, organizations cannot apply traditional leadership paradigms like "command-and-control" or "regulation." Complexity requires "self-organization", and designing for self-organization means designing for engagement, so that decentralized decision-making can happen. In other words: if you look at the task of leadership in complex situations, it is actually identical to the task of game designers. So, "organizing self-organization" is another field where managers can learn from and apply gamification.

A word of caution in the case of designing for compliance: Gamification is a powerful social technology that can– by accident or on purpose – be used against the interest of the target group. Examples are the "Electronic Whip" that employees in Disney's hotels experienced, the gamification logic applied to Amazon's warehouses employees or the "Citizen Score" China is working on. There is clearly an ethical dimension to Game Based Design, precisely because it is such a powerful tool.

We know from Simon Sinek that business is an infinite game and that to organize it as a competitive play does not make much sense. Particularly in the field of incentives, we know from research by Prof. Antoinette Weibel that competitiveness does erode company cultures. What do you think are management processes or areas where you would consciously abstain from a Game-Design?

Wolfgang: It is a common prejudice that competition is at the heart of games. It is not. Socializing is. This is true even for games where players are fighting each other. Studies based on player typologies like the Bartle's Player types  show that "Killers" account for less than 1% of all players. Competition will add an element of challenge, but it should be used as a spice, not as a main ingredient to a motivational design.

Therefore, I would not abstain from using game design principles, but I would strongly recommend applying the right ones.

What "the right ones" are depends, of course, on the context and the target personas. It is like exercising: There is some general advice that is valid for everyone who wants to become fit. But there will be a big difference in your training program if you want to run a marathon or plan to climb Mount Everest.

One management process that is still organized very traditionally is the bidding process when it comes to calls for pitches from external suppliers and partners. As I am considered an external bidder, I very much welcome if somebody has an idea on how to design it in a way that’s more agile and partnering – would you share your idea with us? What current problems or disadvantages does your “start smart” approach overcome?

Wolfgang: Most traditionally designed bidding processes shall provide security to the organization by giving them control over the procurement process. I can understand this need.

The problem is that for a complex task, control is an illusion. Any process designed for security in complexity should be designed for agility and co-creation instead.

Our Start Smart programs are designed to deliver both: By "starting" (and not planning and budgeting the unknowable), they are set up to optimize the balance between performing AND learning with evidence-based strategies for value creation in short sprints. The "smart" refers to a systematic reflection of the basic functions that the organizations and people involved need to engage in together, thus co-creating the different values for the different players.

The most common use case for our Start Smart programs are an organization, team, or manager facing a challenge and not knowing where to start. Before heading towards consultants or any other external help, we had the idea to organize for a runway (before the call for bidding) for the organization, that allows both partners to make better decisions by gathering data and creating shared mental models regarding the project. Of course, both parties needed to be willing to engage in such a sprint. This was actually the situation of our first Start Smart customer. The name (Start Smart) reflects the promise not to get stuck in a situation of either "conscious incompetence" and/or "analysis paralysis."

Can you tell us about your learnings from this program so far? What have been your expected and unexpected lessons learned and what are next steps?

Wolfgang: We did the first Start Smart program with ABB in the context of their agile leadership program. The managers who wanted to participate in the six-week program needed to have a "complex problem that had no obvious solution." They needed to provide a series of both structured and narrative descriptions of their case to qualify for admission to the program. Those passing this test were teamed up with colleagues facing similar challenges to benefit from community effects. When building those clusters, we found that most of the challenges could be traced back to two root causes that we labeled "strategy" and "people issues." Interestingly, both of these were dominated by the question of "whose value is at stake." We observed particularly in large companies that the "challenging environment" is typically internal and dominated by politics. Whereas in SMEs, the challenge is mainly externally and associated with customer needs.
We learned that the Start Smart programs have a triple impact, making them worth to consider for organizations looking for any of the following impacts:

Progress: On an operational level, Start Smart helps companies to make progress / start working on a wicked problem.

Learning: As the participants are solving these problems themselves, being guided, coached, and supported by a team of experts, Start Smart programs also develop competencies, teach methods and tools on how to tackle "strategy," "people issues" or other challenges in the future.

Change: Finally, a Start Smart program aims for an impact on a cultural level. Introducing a process of systematic reflection of values can trigger future awareness and conversations. We support this through what we call "Advance Smart" communities, the alumni organization of Start Smart program participants.

As my personal “trendspotter,” what do you see as the next relevant trend for the field of people management, after agile, heterarchy and so on?

I do not know if I am spotting a trend. But I can tell you two connected things I currently find interesting and inspiring.

Organizations are becoming more permeable and distributed, loosely coupled
I am convinced that the ever-rising environmental complexity combined with ever-rising technological capabilities will create completely new forms of collaboration. I think that organizations will lose their monolithic shape and become more permeable. Think from market-based organizations like Haier to blockchain based decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), running on smart contracts. The Corona crisis contributed a lot to this opening up, forcing organizations to experiment and learn how to function and work with players that are remote.

Leadership as organizing for self-organized collaboration
As a consequence, leadership will shift from being a role to becoming a distributed task. I envision management to deal with two main issues, both related to value in a broad sense, meaning everything that is related to human needs. Those issues are 1.) organizing the coordination of the creation and distribution of values, and 2.) designing the contexts needed for collaboration and learning to create these values.

Human Facts recently collected questions that had the power to change lives or our thinking. What is the question you think the field of people management would benefit from asking?

Wolfgang: The one thing I consider having the biggest impact on most people-related issues is the ability to reflect when we reflexively judge. The one "magic" question helping with this would be "what do I need to assume to be true in order for what I just experienced to make sense?"

And personally, in your own life: Do you remember a question that has helped you change or move your life forward in the right or a new direction?

Wolfgang: Maybe two "questions" I ask myself a lot qualify for an answer. I say "questions" in quotation marks, because they are more what Gregory Bateson called "a difference, that makes a difference."

Is it a need or a strategy?
My personal opinion is that 80 percent of all conflicts arise because people confuse their needs with their strategies to satisfy them. The difference is important, because needs are what drives people, but strategies are how they are translated into actions and expectations. If these actions and expectations collide with other people's strategies, you should recur to the underlying needs in order to engage in a constructive dialogue and come up with aligned strategies that address all party's needs. Unfortunately, often people fight over their strategies instead…

Is it a problem or a polarity?
The second difference applies to decisions to make, or solutions to find. It is asking whether the situation at hand is a "problem" or a "polarity."

This difference is crucial because only problems can be solved, while polarities involve at least one dilemma. Polarities require you to find a position all parties can live with, at least temporarily. A polarity will need constant attention, balancing different interests and values of different stakeholders. While "problems solved" can be dismissed, polarities will keep coming back again and again. Therefore treating a polarity like a problem is doomed to fail.

I guess we are both “sitting in the same boat” and we both know that inspiring change against a contemporary mainstream isn’t easy. For the last two decades you have cultivated in my eyes an incredible openness to rethink anew without getting tired, to detect opportunities in changing environments and to stay always hopeful and positive with regards to the unknown. What helps you most to keep up this energetic and positive attitude towards our future?


This one is easy: I am incurably curious. Trying and learning things is a really strong driver for me, giving me a strong feeling of satisfaction.

And finally, is there anything left you would have loved I ask you?

The upside of the Covid crisis is that lot of learning has taken place in a short amount of time. People were forced to leave their comfort zones, many times to find themselves all but uncomfortable outside them. As a consequence of all the improvising and experimentation, a great lot of learning has taken place.
If you had asked me how to create and maintain such a behavior without the brute force of a global pandemic, I might have come up with some ideas for this challenge and even could have picked your brain on this question in the discussion. Maybe this is a topic for another session… :-)

Thank you so much for your time and sharing your thoughts, Wolfgang. As always it was very inspiring! I am looking forward to continuing to hear, learn and exchange with you! Stay safe and healthy!

*) I met Wolfgang Rathert during my times at UBS in a division-wide project to implement E-Learning in the people development area. Since then, I had the pleasure to have countless inspiring personal exchanges of forward thinking ideas, books, authors, concepts which allowed me to present it to the readers of Eva’s AusLese before they reached a broad audience, such as e.g. Lean-Startup. As an entrepreneur, Wolfgang organizes with Pik AG such exchanges and conferences, as well on a professional level for HR-Professionals on a regular basis. The next hybrid conference (in German) will be from November 18th to 31st , 2021, covering the question of how to manage culture and change by scaling leadership. Find out more

Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Dr. Eva Bilhuber
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24. February 2022
Very interesting discussion on Business games as tool for productivity. I just thought in cultures where children are brought up to be seen and not heard that curiosity is suppressed very early. Gaming therefore evokes the curiosity and makes individuals creative and innovative as they ask the questions they were not allowed to ask in time.
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