Ten Steps to Designing a Great Game

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner

The first of this two-part series, Meaningful Games at Work, addressed why and how games can help grow your business. Part Two provides pointers on developing games appropriate for your business.

While there’s no perfect formula for designing group games, here is a ten-step recipe that we use at Zingerman’s to get better results. The recipe can be adapted for individual or group rewards, both short- and long-term.

Here’s how to design a good game:

1. Identify key issues to address.

First, list the top issues you need to address in your business. These could be things critical to the organization’s financial success, such as sales, food cost, profit, or maybe even cash on hand. They could also be service-related—number of mistakes, scores on mystery shopping, etc. Other factors could include product quality, cleanliness, accuracy, health and safety. Ultimately, anything you want to improve can be the subject of a game.

2. Pick an issue to work with from the list.

The question is what criterion you use to make that choice. I look for the key issues, the ones most important to the organization’s or a department’s success. If you have truly critical issues, use this tool to help. If you’re running out of cash, construct a game concentrating on cash on hand to get staff focused on what needs to happen for the business to survive. Games should be fun, but they can also be about survival.

If running games is new to you, pick something relatively simple, something that should create a win to get the group off to a good start.

3. Set the target number.

Determine if there are industry standards that can drive you. For instance, is your food cost higher than the norm? If so, benchmark with others to obtain a realistic and reasonable target. However, be careful to compare apples to apples—what one business calls “labor cost might not include benefits; another’s might. Before setting game targets based on what others have told you, be sure you know what they mean.

In addition, look at historical benchmarks. If the best year you had was a profit of 5 percent, try to beat that this year. If you are driven by real need, make that the focus. For instance, “We must have $20,000 in the bank by the end of the month to meet payroll.

4. Develop a measurement system.

Determine how to track your progress/success. If it’s a service game, what’s the metric? If the desired result is sales, make sure everyone knows what “sales means and that all are using the same language in their measurement. Games don’t work if players have conflicting understandings of how the score will be calculated.

5. Determine who’s playing the game.

People need to know if they are part of the team for any given game. While there’s not a “right answer to this question, clarity is critical. Usually, we include everyone on the team that’s beyond “orientation; this encourages new staff members to finish initial orientation training requirements. That said, some games include everyone regardless of when they’ve been hired; for others, we include only those who actively sign up to play. (I personally prefer this because it requires people to be proactive before the game starts so that they’re engaging mentally and making a commitment to the group that they will play to win.)

Remember that the more people playing the game means that each share of the pool of winnings is likely to be smaller. Or, conversely, the smaller the number of players, the bigger each one’s share.

6. Estimate the benefit of winning to the organization.

If you hit the target, what is the benefit to the organization? Focusing, for example, on financial benefits, if your goal is to reduce food costs by one point on sales of $100,000, then you will contribute $1,000 to the business.

Or, alternatively, if you plan to reduce mistakes from ten per week to five and your average error costs $50, then you will save $250 per week.

7. Develop the reward pool for team members.

Based on what you’ve calculated, determine how much of the pool to share. The point is truly to share; giving the entire savings to the staff is not a great idea because the organization itself has to win as well. Giving nothing to the staff leaves them out of the game. A rule of thumb I use is to give out somewhere between 20 percent and 40 percent of the total win. When you involve the staff in planning the game, it’s amazing how conservative they will be in giving anything away. At the same time, they’ll tell you quickly what is, or is not, inspiring for them.

8. Determine game duration.

There’s no “right answer here. We use a blend of short-term and long-term games. If you’re just starting with games, choose something short that people can keep track of easily, hopefully win and benefit from within a brief period of time. By contrast, it’s wise to have long-term games in place as well—profitability for the year, annual service ratings, etc.

And, as you get more comfortable, there’s much to be said for running both short- and long-term games at the same time. (I recommend mixing the games—if your annual game is tied to profit, run a monthly “mini-game on service quality to balance it out.)

9. Check, check and recheck before you start.

I look at the games as I would a pay raise or a personal bonus commitment to a staff member. If you back off, an integrity gap is created that will not be easy to overcome later. Once the game is underway and the rules have been publicized, integrity demands that we stick to them unless there’s some sort of near catastrophic development that precludes us doing so. That means you must check things closely before the game gets going.

Here are some things to check out: Make sure there are proper math tests and sign offs on the game and its rules. Get a set of different eyes to review the game for problems or flaws. An accountant, for sure. Also, an hourly staff member may see things managers do not. The more key players that look at the game in draft form, the better off you will be.

Anticipate “demotivators and unintended negative results. For every positive action, there will be some reaction. So, think through some of the “unintended outcomes of the game. For instance, if you are trying to reduce food cost, the quickest way to do that might be for your buyers to purchase lower quality ingredients.

Build in qualifiers accordingly. In the food cost example, one of the rules should be that “quality scores have to be at least as high as they were before the game started. That way, food costs aren’t reduced simply by buying lower-grade product.

10. Rollout and play the game.

If you’ve done all of the above, playing the game should go well. Here are four things that need to happen to turn your earlier work into effective “on-the-field action.

a) Pick a good name for the game.

Names make a bigger difference than you think. The game is something you sell to the staff, so the better the name, the better the game is going to stick in their minds.

b) Write it up.

Games are clearer and more effective when we write up the rules and hang them (or share them in whatever venue you like to use), so everyone knows what you are doing. When the write up is done well, you can fit the whole thing on one single sheet or poster with three headings and a bit of copy below each—some version of: The Game: The Rules: The Winnings:

c) Put it on a scoreboard.

No game works if you don’t keep score. To increase the odds of the game being successful, make sure the scoreboard is:

Big and bold. If you need to look for it on a computer server, or if requires detailed reading of a spreadsheet, it will not be effective. What sort of scoreboard gets your attention at a sporting contest? Make it big, colorful, interesting, engaging and eye-catching.

Easily understood. It must be something that everyone involved in the game can understand in an instant without spending too much time studying.

Interactive. Scoreboards work best when they change, so set it up so that someone is filling in the score every time new numbers come in. Consider making it a daily or weekly ritual to get the numbers up so that high levels of attention get paid to the score. When the score is close to a win, you will receive plenty of attention.

d) Share the success.

Being able to pay bonuses—whether cash, pizza parties or car washes for the staff —is one of the most gratifying aspects of this whole thing. It’s exhilarating to see how a team’s attitude goes up when they start to record some success. Being able to reinforce that success by handing out the “winners’ shares is a great thing to do. For anyone on the team, it is an inspiring way to celebrate and feel good about the contribution they’ve made to the business, the customers, their fellow staff members and themselves.