How social innovation contributes to Digital Transformation through serious play!

You are as much co-responsible for the success within your organisation as you are empowered.  Your management want to tag along on the next improvement wave in the market. They will have to, as competition is growing stronger! You notice that strategies and work practices are changing increasingly fast these last years and you think to yourself: ‘We will have to keep improving and changing continuously’. Yet, how will you convince the leaders in your organisation that not only you, but the rest of the organisation too has to start moving ahead?

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Do you acknowledge that it is time to make a move? Are you searching for ways to get more autonomy so that you and your colleagues can collaborate towards success? Do your colleagues behave more like a player or a pawn? Continue reading to find out how Social Innovation contributes to Digital Transformation through serious play!

High-tech in connection with High-touch

Continuous change is not just the story of the newest hype Agile; at the heart of this dance for efficiency and effectiveness we find the question of how Social Innovation can support the organisation through its digital transformation. How do our leaders connect the fast world of high-tech with the much slower world of human behavior, high-touch? Because every time you rearrange the organisation to be ready for the future, ‘the future’ has surpassed you already, requiring yet another round of high-tech change. Just try to let your people get used to that!

The bigger picture

On a higher level of organisation our leaders deal with a recurrent set of issues: do we remain customer centered to keep sales up? Are our processes lean and agile enough to keep costs low? Do we have the right people to get the job done? And, importantly, how could our Innovation Architecture enable our business most optimally?

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From this level of organisation, we may expect a balanced vision, with more empowerment for the employee and accompanying resources. To arrive at such vision, and consequent successful transformation journey we could best start with a digitial fitness scan: what is the current state of our innovative capacity? And what can we do to improve this capacity?

The pressure on organisations to implement forms of social innovation increases. In our service economy there is a decreasing demand for human labour as means for standard production. What we really need is for employees to be engaged, offering creative solutions so that the organisation as a whole can continuously improve its working processes and maximize customer value. On top of that, most innovations start outside of the organisation rather than from within. Why would we try to create everything in-house, when we can make use of the shared knowledge of our surroundings? So we need to design organisations human centered to be able to leverage creative involvement, improve continuously and stay open to sounds and signals from the surrounding. Cisco’s employee advocacy program is an excellent example of leveraging social innovation successfully. Done purposefully, empowered employees tend to be more motivated, engaged, and loyal to the organisation.icon people_improvement.png

At first glance it seems clear story: involving motivated employees in business operation improves organisational impact. However, motivating and engaging people at work proves to be difficult. Agile advices team empowerment and a few other (short-cyclic) activities. D. Pink describes as prerequisites for motivation 3.0 a basic salary, and furthermore autonomy, mastery and purpose. Yet, how can we make use of these techniques and ideas to implement them in our own work environment?


The search for more autonomy and purpose at work, this shift from control and hierarchy to autonomy and equality is not new. In 1972 the Bolivar Project promised blue collar workers more freedom and democracy at work. The success triggered more attention and copies of the model, which in turn created enemies in union leaders and managers of similar companies as it undermined their power. A few years later this project failed, only after the company changed owners who replaced managers. Instead of empowering and supporting the learning from mistakes, they taught employees that mistakes are punished.[1]  Compare this to our current surge of freedom and democracy at work, promoted via Agile frameworks, and notice the importance of experimentation and mistakes on the road to success!.


Motivated and engaged employees: prerequisite for Social innovation

To be able to make use of extra motivation and engagement of employees, a certain degree of freedom is inevitable. It makes a difference whether you lock a professional up with rules and demands, or give guidance through clear goals with a degree of freedom to reach them. Yet, many organisations struggle with the implications of letting go of rules and demands. Leaders dare little and choose a ‘fragile’ solution and only meagerly wish for, or on the flip-side demand creative input and engagement from employees. This (leadership) behavior demotivates and harms the organisation on the longer run. A little more playfulness could bring much relief!

There are functioning ways to boost Social innovation. Especially when motivation and engagement, the soft side of change is discussed. Only, this requires an ethic, a will of higher management to invest in the so-called soft side of change, in trust. Serious play, mixing work and game, has proven to be a motor for social innovation. Because every person, and every organisation already plays a game… conscious organisational design to trigger desired behavior is possible through gamification. You can grow insight in the game that your organisation plays through serious games. Would you like to play more effectively with your organisation?
Serious play and using the lens of a game to look at your work has proven to be very effective. Both for organisations in pursuit of a more human-centered design, as well as for employees who want to increase their effectivity on the playfield of their organisation. And, last but not least, serious play offer an experimental space to safely adopt new ways of working.
Three forms of serious play

Picturing your organisation as a playing field with players and pawns creates the urgency to become an active player. It is a real challenge for most people to understand the game they play, yet awareness is necessary before you can contribute sensibly. Continuous improvement, via Lean, Agile or other ways implies changes in tactics of the game. You may experience these changes as obstacles to your personal goals, or alternatively you can learn how to play the game from the bigger picture and align personal goals to reach success. This counts for individuals as well as organisations. Drawing near to each other and cooperate on the basis of trust and empowerment turns the game into a play for all. Because everybody is involved in the game: as a player or as a pawn. If you are not sure of your skills, come join us and learn how to play successfully!

The three main ways game-thinking can impact you and your organisation are serious gaming, gamification and game based learning. They guide your path from undesired control to the desired amount of freedom and motivation at work.


     Serious gaming translates parts of reality into a game. Elements, roles and attributes help players recognize their own behavior while exploring new behavior. Playing a serious game offers trust in future successes, shortening the feedback loop, zooming in on different parts of reality that need clarification, and learning about new ways of working safely without consequences. You are invited to experiment and make mistakes!

     Gamification of work is a way of consciously designing the workplace to elicit the behavior necessary to created shared successes. It offers a toolbox to those who seek to enhance motivation and engagement at work, specifically when the interface between human and ICT is involved. A gamified environment must have a degree of freedom in order to effectively engage employees, fun and creative input cannot be forced.

     Game based learning enhances current learning formats by incorporating the newest insights about how our brain works. In fact, game elements and interactive learning have always worked well to convey knowledge and alter behavior of individuals and groups.


Think like a game designer

A playful attitude to work and life in general holds great advantages. Especially while searching to increase our degree of freedom, new forms of cooperation and more flexible organisations. Playfulness and experimentation is much less fitting to an environment with a high dosage of seriousness and risk-aversion. There is a right time and place for the game designer in us to awaken, yet all of us have this capability to think about problems in a game-like way. Games work wonders especially when you and your organisation are wrestling with Agile implementation. Besides, games have proven themselves for years now!

So, if your aim is to effectively engage customers and employees, work processes should be designed human-centered, eliciting the desired behavior. No command and control, but a balance between guiding principles and self-directedness. Serious play supports this design of social innovation. It offers answers to challenges of the Agile frameworks. How does my organisation stimulate cooperation between teams and departments? How do we motivate and reward customer oriented behavior? Who can get away with doing the bare minimum? Every organisation already plays a game. Be conscious and learn to think like a game designer.

[1] Bolivar Project: Ciulla J.B. (2000). The Working Life, the promise and betrayal of modern work. Times Books, Random House, hoofdstuk 7: how did work get so confusing?

About the author: Abram Janse – Trainer Agile & Gamification consultant, connected with Simagine Game Expertise Centre

I am simplifying the complexity in organizational and behavioral change. It gives me energy to set up an approach, which makes it pleasant to work hard together! Also during trainings I employ various learning methods such as serious gaming, gamification and online learning platforms to help people get motivated to learn better and translate work to play. We need to move out of classrooms and away from dusty books!

“Turn your training into play, but always play seriously” (Bruce Lee)