Saturday, July 01, 2006

GUIDEPOSTS: Character Lessons from D&D to the Real World

Warning: You will have to hang in with me for a few paragraphs of wondering about. I promise there is a valid business / team lesson buried in this narrative, but a bit of background is necessary to make the story come together.

In my high school days, I was an avid Dungeons and Dragons player. As I moved into my college and then professional years, the time available for D&D faded, but occasionally I'm struck by an instance where something that I learned or a technique that I developed in playing D&D becomes the key to a real life situation.

About a year ago, I was asked by my company to found a high energy, leading edge software development team to develop new products for new markets. Leading edge software development (or Innovation Engineering as we have come to call it) is quite different from working on a well established application. It requires team members who can take in a wide variety of information from a wide variety of sources and make pragmatic decisions that allow a product to be built from scratch and moved to market quickly. Compromises have to be made all over the place. Time to market is critical; a sales force is being built and trained; marketing is launching campaigns to generate interest, and gather information. The company is investing heavily. Information and understanding are limited but growing as individuals and teams have a series of ahah moments.

Out of all of this chaos, and by the time sales is ready to sell, the engineering team has to have something that the customers will recognize as a solution to their key problems.

Innovation engineering is different from normal Software engineering and it requires a different sort of team. I knew who my first two team members were going to be before I accepted this assignment. But, we needed a way to make the critical decisions to add or screen out additional prospective team members.

It was at this point that I fell back on a D&D inspired technique. The hardest and most important part of creating a Fantasy Role Playing Game (RPG) character is making the character real... Giving it character. The wonder of D&D is that the game changes from minute to minute. The players' actions and choices help the dungeon master (DM) to weave a wide ranging, unique story. D&D is a free choice game, with the Dungeon Master turning the players' free will actions into game world consequences. Because each player can do whatever they want at any point, it is impossible to anticipate the situations your character will be faced with. Character development is one of the most difficult and most important aspects to being a good D&D player.

My technique for developing a character was to start by choosing GUIDEPOST words or ideas that drive my characters actions in a wide variety of situations. Here is the first part of a GUIDEPOST list for one of my most memorable characters:
  1. Pragmatic...
  2. Shy at first, slow to develop friends, but open and very trustworthy once the friendship is established
  3. Careful, avoids risk until the extent and nature of the risk are well known
  4. Inventive...
  5. Independent, Not comfortable under the rule of others...
  6. Reacts strongly to children, will over react to any situation that endangers children
The point of the GUIDEPOST words is to capture some of the key aspects of my new character. GUIDEPOSTS make it possible to quickly judge how my fantasy character should react to a wide variety of situations. This results in giving the character dimension and making him/her feel real.

Innovation engineering is a new concept at our company so there are no existing models or processes to draw upon. So, we decided to fall back on the well established idea that it is the people that make every project succeed or fail. The character of the individuals in the team and the overall character of the team are the keys to success for virtually any group effort. It is much easier to help someone develop new capabilities than to correct a bad attitude or adjust an ill fitting character. So our decision making process was to center around each individual's character and the impact they would have on our overall team. Skills and knowledge are a factor, but are very much a secondary factor.

Character assessment is a notoriously difficult problem to solve. How do we go about doing that? Well, back in my D&D days, I developed my fantasy character using the concept of GUIDEPOSTS. The same concept works well here. By defining our team's character in the form of our collective GUIDEPOSTS we would have specific bench marks to use in our team member selection process. By matching the GUIDEPOSTS to our current team and our team's objectives we have an objective measure to help make what are usually very subjective decisions.

Our team is still small, but we have added team members, and have decided to not add potential team members based on their fit to our character GUIDEPOSTS. This decision is not a comment on the worth of the individual, but instead is our judgement on how they fit into our team and into our plans to achieve our objectives. Different teams, different objectives, different GUIDEPOSTS, different choices. Viva la difference.

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