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Want to Improve? Don’t Make Resolutions. Play Games and Keep Score!

It’s the New Year. And everybody decides to start a new year with resolutions, resolving to change their behavior for the better. They are going to lose weight and exercise more. They’re going to spend more time with their family, instead of work; they’re going to read more and watch less television; and so forth. And as we find every year: we just can’t keep to our resolutions. Here’s an idea to help you achieve the behavior you would like: instead of making resolutions, play games and keep score.

Playing the Game

Last year I had a couple of engagements in Phoenix, Arizona with the same company at the end of June and early July and talked to two different groups of business analysts, software developers, testers, and so forth. In the first session, a young man asked how he could become “spontaneous”. I asked what that meant, and he said that he wanted to be able to contribute in meetings and gatherings instead of remaining quiet and in the background. He wanted to be able to give voice to his thoughts and opinions. In the second meeting, a young fellow asked how he could become less “shy” in business settings. What they wanted was some kind of magic phrase from me or timeless advice that would change their perspective and suddenly make them more loquacious and outgoing. Unfortunately I didn’t have such a magic phrase.

What I did have was a program of practice. I thought up a game they could play that would do the trick painlessly. I suggested that they make a commitment to making one statement and asking one question in each meeting they attend. Any question and any statement would be acceptable. A question such as “would you mind repeating that, I didn’t hear you?”, and a statement such as “I agree with that” would be allowed. I told them to create a spreadsheet, and keep score of the number of times they made a statement and asked the question in a meeting. The spreadsheet is for keeping score: the Rows would be the meetings and the columns would say how many questions they asked and how many statements they made. “Do this for about three months,” I told each of them, “and if you find that you are routinely meeting your quota of questions and statements, increase your quota”. 

Why it Works

The magic of this particular game is twofold. First of all, of course, they would overcome their fear of speaking in front of a group and give them the mindset that what they have to say is just as important and interesting as what anyone else has to say. The second bit of magic is that over time, there will be natural positive feedback from others in the groups or meetings. People might say “yes, I’m glad you asked that; I didn’t hear either”, or “thank you for agreeing with me”. Even a nod or smile will serve as positive feedback and help overcome the fear (the fear that is based on rejection or disapproval from others) so that the game player will be encouraged to do more.

One of the fellows, the second one, wrote me an email in August telling me that it was working. He found it much easier and comfortable even to talk in front of a group of people and he mentioned anecdotally that it gave him confidence he didn’t know he had which was helping in other aspects of his life as well.

The reason this game works is misdirection. Your focus in the game is not on learning how to talk in crowds or overcoming fears; your focus is on getting your quota per meeting. As you look at your spreadsheet and see zeros you will resolve to eliminate those zeros in the next meetings simply to win the game. It becomes more of a scorekeeping exercise than a behavior modification exercise. Can I go for three months coming up with at least one thing to say and one question asked in each meeting, business or social? Without being aware of it, you will find that whatever the behavior you wish to change – whether it is to add a new behavior, alter an existing behavior, or remove a behavior you’d rather do without – will be changed and new habits developed. And usually, you won’t even know it happened until you look back at where you were when you started the game.

Another Good Example 

Late last year a fellow down in Austin, Texas, by the name of Jia Jiang, decided to overcome his fear of rejection and his emotional and even physical reaction to rejection. He decided to play a game in which every day he would purposefully make a request of someone for something which he knew would be rejected once a day for one hundred days. He videotaped each encounter. He asked an editor at Bloomberg BusinessWeek if he could write articles for the magazine even though he had no experience; he asked a professor at the University of Texas in Austin if he could teach one of the professor’s classes; he asked the flight attendant on a Southwest Airline flight if he could give the preflight safety announcements; he asked a Domino’s employee if he could deliver pizzas. He asked a stranger to lend him $100, and another stranger online for a Black Friday sales event if he could cut in front of him. He received negative responses in all cases. In the beginning it was difficult, even when he knew he was going to be told, “No”. As he proceeded through his hundred days, he found it becoming easier and easier to accept rejection. And as usually happens with games of this type, when the targeted specific behavior changes other behaviors also change. In the case of Jia, he found that he was more able to ask for even preposterous things. His confidence increased to such a degree that an increasing number of requests toward the end of his hundred days, the person being asked did not say “No”.

How it’s done

So what does that mean to you? As with anything a business analyst does, you first understand the as-is situation which means an honest self-appraisal and self-assessment. You may not need one, but it’s good to do one anyway. You can do this in a number of different ways. The least painful is to identify people that you would wish to emulate, people you admire –people who are alive now, people who have lived sometime in history, people you know, people you don’t know, even fictitious people. Then identify the characteristics of those people that you admire. For example, if you want to be a better business analyst look around to those who seem in your eyes to have it together as a business analyst: people in your organization, people in your professional groups, people you know only online or through conferences. Define why you think they are a top business analyst. (Note that there is no finite definition of a top business analyst. What we are talking about is what you think the characteristics of a top business analyst are).

Once you have determined those characteristics that you find admirable and that you wish to emulate, make a list of them, prioritize them and pick one, just one, of the characteristics, or behaviors. Then make a game of challenging yourself to do something that will overcome whatever obstacle you have to achieving that behavior or characteristic. Set a timetable for performing the game and the important thing is to keep score. Without the scorekeeping and the daily revisiting of the score pad to update the score, the behavior modification becomes a simple matter of willpower and that does not always work. Keeping score gives us a constant reminder and places us in a competitive situation and that will provide the motivation to keep you true to your goal.

The Hard Part

The hard part isn’t really doing the assessment, although some will people find it difficult, and the hard part isn’t really deciding on which characteristic of behavior you would like to adopt. In the end it really makes no difference because when you have adopted one behavior you go back to the list and pick the next one until you are satisfied that you are a top business analyst or whatever you want to be. The hard part is coming up with a relatively nonintrusive, challenging, and achievable game for which you can keep score. But there usually is at least one game for every behavior you would like to modify. To back up that statement I will offer the following: if you determine behavior you want to change and cannot come up with a game to play, drop me a line and likely I can give you one. And I’d love to hear about your successes.

So play the game, keep the score, change your behaviors without pain, and as the U S military outfit says, in 2013, “be the best you can be”.

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