Stories by Owen McCall

Game mechanics: The new leadership paradigm

About two years ago I co-founded the Life Game Project (LGP). LGP is focused on using immersive online games to support learning the skills required to be successful in life. For learning to occur two things need to be present for the learner. Content, there has to be something to learn, and engagement, they have to want to learn. Traditional education does a great job of delivering content but increasingly it struggles to engage the learner. Games are experts at creating engagement and if you can use them to deliver the educational content then you can make significant progress on learning.As I continued to research games I began to realise that games not only have a role to play in learning but can teach us a lot about leadership and how to engage our teams. A highly engaged team is an important enabler of a world class IT organisation as research has established a link between high levels of team engagement and outstanding organisational results.So, how do games engage and how can we use these insights at work?My game genres of choice are massively multi-player online (MMOs) games. Here are some of the mechanics that MMOs use to engage which are relevant to work environments:• Games provide tasks (often called quests) to players based upon their current level of expertise. The tasks they provide are positioned at or just above your current level of competency. At their best the offered tasks are challenging but doable.• Task are always given context. That is players are told how this particular task fits into the overall scheme of the story and why it is important.• The objective of the task and the success measures are clear. Players know precisely they need to achieve / produce.• While guidance is provided, players gets to choose if they complete the task and how the task is done (while the player does get to choose which tasks to complete in reality if you refuse too many task it makes the game tough to play).• Games provide plenty of feedback and recognition to players, providing a real sense of achievement and progress.• If you get stuck in an MMO there is always someone to ask. While help may come from official game information, more often it comes from the player community and player-generated forums and wikis. How can we use these insights? I am not about to advocate turning work into a game (at least not yet) however I do believe implementing these and similar mechanics in the work environment will improve engagement. Here are some things you can and should do:1. When asking your team to do something, always link the task back to the vision so your team understand how what they are doing fits in.2. Be clear on what is expected and what success looks like. As far as practical these success measures should be objective and measurable.3. Ensure that what you are asking the team to do is appropriate for their level of skill and ability. Ideally the task should be a stretch which supports the team members' personal development.4. Your focus should be on the outcomes or results not the method. Let the team members decide how the work should be done.5. Provide access to as many peer and network support mechanisms as practical, so the 'player' can work out for themselves what support they need and when.6. Provide clear and consistent feedback so they know how they are progressing. If they are succeeding, provide recognition. If they are struggling, consider how you can coach and support them.As I look through this list one thing stands out for me: Often as a leader, we focus on managing and controlling work produced by our team. What games teach us is that as a leader, our dominant focus needs to be on designing work and providing clear feedback and recognition rather than management and control. Game designers are so good at designing work that people pay them to be able to do the "work" in the game. Imagine what might be possible if our work-based leaders become as good at work design as game developers.Note: the ideas I have expressed in this column are mine however they have been highly influenced by Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken and I heartily recommend this book to you. Owen McCall is director of Viewfield Consulting. He can be reached through and through his blog at

Written by Owen McCall19 April 12 10:32

Engagement in the 21st century

Research shows that high levels of engagement are associated with lower staff turnover, high levels of customer satisfaction and superior organisational performance. Conversely a lack of engagement is linked to high staff turnover and poor organisational performance. Because of this link the last decade has seen a significant level of leadership attention on improving employee engagement. Despite this, precious few members of our teams are engaged, less than 20 percent, and this number does not appear to be improving. This begs the question, why is this and what can we do about it?I believe engagement is difficult to improve because our organisations are based primarily on the work of Fredrick Taylor and the scientific management movement of the early 20th century. However, the nature of work and people's motivation to work have changed. So what are these changes?1. Increasing wealth changes motivations. Throughout history up to the early 20th century, people worked to ensure that they had the basic necessities of life. That is, they had food to eat, clothes to wear and a warm, dry house to live in. As a result work was designed to meet these needs with the extrinsic reward of money. You went to work and did what you were told and in return you received enough money to feed, clothe and house your family.Today in the western world this level of "wealth" and existence is guaranteed by the government and the welfare system. People do not have to go to work to meet these basic needs, but they still go to work -- why? Because as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs points out, as one set of human needs are satisfied, others emerge. In this case the needs that emerge are the needs for love and acceptance and ego gratification. The employment relationship of work for money is not designed to meet needs for love and acceptance as these needs cannot be satisfied by money or other external rewards.2. Knowledge work cannot be "controlled". Throughout history the majority of people were involved in physical work, whether this was farming, craft-based work or work on an assembly line, with very few people making decisions. Physical work is easy to define, measure and control. Today, with offshoring of the majority of manufacturing and basic clerical jobs and the growth of the services sector this is no longer true. Most jobs now require some level of complex thinking and decision-making. These types of jobs are more difficult to define, measure and control and as Daniel Pink points out in Drive, our performance in these jobs deteriorates when external rewards are applied.If we can design our organisations, and more specifically work, to meet our higher order needs for acceptance, ego gratification and self actualisation while recognising the need to relinquish management control in favour of employee control, then engagement and performance will naturally begin to increase. The good news is we already have a model of how this could work -- games. In particular, multi-player online games which are played by millions of people of all ages. Please be clear, I am not advocating that all work should be presented as a game (although I do think that would be awesome) but, that the mechanics built into today's games are brilliant at motivating people to play by meeting their higher order needs while giving complete control to the players. The result is that people do hours and hours of "work" in the form of quests or missions, for free (actually in most cases the player pays for the privilege to do this work). There are dozens of these mechanics but the basic building block of all these games are quests (sometimes called challenges or missions). The quest definition usually includes why the work is important, what exactly has to be achieved (eg bring item X to person Y) what rewards are available on completion and some direction to get you started. Importantly a player is not told how to complete the quest, this is up to them. Having defined a series of quests several other mechanics can be linked to the completion of these quests to provide instant feedback to players. These could be experience points, achievements, and levelling up, all of which provide feedback to the player and reconfirm that they are making progress.This is possible to do in the workplace but it does require that we rethink the role of leadership to be more about "designing the game" rather than managing and controlling the game. My future columns will explore how to design the game. <strong><em>Owen McCall is director of Viewfield Consulting. He can be reached through and through his blog at</em></strong>

Written by Owen McCall17 Feb. 12 12:57

The coach as a leader

Richard Bach said: &#8220;We teach best what we most need to learn,&#8221; and it is within the spirit of &#8220;what I most need to learn&#8221; that I write this column.

Written by Owen McCall26 Nov. 11 22:00

Knowledge is power! Or is it?

We hear all the time that knowledge is power. In our industry we use this mantra as a justification for all sorts of investment, particularly investments in business intelligence. But is knowledge really power?Let's consider this. In our house we have one rule (thanks to my sister, from whom we lifted this rule). That rule is "everyone deserves love and respect no matter how I feel now". I love this rule because if you use this as your filter for everything that you do it is very difficult to go wrong.Much of my and my wife's teachings to the children in our house (both our own and others that join us from time to time) is based on reinforcing this one rule and what it means. The result is everyone in our house knows this rule, no matter how long they have been with us.Translating this knowledge into action however is problematic. I have come to the conclusion that although we know what love and respect are intellectually, we are not skilled at the behaviours that demonstrate love and respect. Aligned with this is that historically we, like most parents, are drawn to deal with "bad" behaviour rather than reinforcing the behaviour we want.Recently we have changed our approach by adding two tools to our parenting tool kit. Firstly, we have been very explicit about what behaviours demonstrate love and respect (for example, "when I am at school I will do what the teacher asks first time, without complaining") and secondly when we get "bad" behaviour (they are kids after all) we identify it, identify what behaviour would show love and respect and practice the behaviour we want.The results have been fantastic and we are progressively getting more of the behaviour we want and consequently less of the behaviour we do not want. We are beginning to get real power as we close the gap between knowledge and action by focusing on what we want and practicing those behaviours.This knowledge action gap occurs everywhere. It impacts all areas of our lives not just personal and family issues. For example, I recently have become involved with the <a href="">'Getting IT Right'</a> group.The objective of the group is to raise the bar on IT delivery in New Zealand. As the group began to discuss the issues and potential solutions to "getting IT right" it became apparent to me that the issue we face is that we do not consistently do what we know we should do. As an industry we have plenty of tools and knowledge freely available, but we lack consistent focused action. For example, we all know about the ITIL framework but do we use its guidance consistently? What about project management methods? What about IT governance? I could go on and on. The knowledge is there but we do not use it or at least we do not use it effectively, often focusing on the form of the tools and methods, rather than the intent and behaviour that is required to be successful. Also we tend to focus our management efforts on fixing wrong behaviour rather than supporting and practicing the behaviour we want. My conclusion from this is that if we want to improve the results we are getting for our team or as an industry we would be well served to be:1) Be explicit about what behaviours we want. 2) Practice these behaviours so we are good at them and they come more naturally. 3) Reward and encourage these behaviours when we see them. Knowledge is not power, knowledge is potential power. Action, preferably well researched, explicit, and focused action, is power.I know this all sounds like common sense but as the old saying goes, common sense is not common practice and it's not about knowing what to do, it's about doing what you know! <strong><em>Owen McCall is director of Viewfield Consulting, a specialist consulting firm focusing on supporting CIOs to be successful. He can be reached through and through his blog at</em></strong><a href=""><strong><em></em></strong></a>

Written by Owen McCall07 Oct. 11 11:36

'It's all about me - but not for the reasons I thought'

It is funny how life goes in circles. As a young man I knew that if I was going to be successful in life it would be up to me to make it happen. It needed to be that way because my family was a farming family and had been since we had arrived in New Zealand five generations ago. Everyone farmed, it is just what you did. I hated farming. It was hard work, boring and didn&#8217;t seem to pay very well. If I was going to avoid farming I would have to figure out how.
The obvious answer was to go to university and get a degree that would help me into a career other than farming. So I did and before I knew it I was a member of the fledgling Deloitte consulting practice. I loved consulting and the environment I was operating in. Every day was different and every day I learnt something new. The longer you were there the more you realised that yes, success was up to you, how hard you worked and how successful you were at providing value to your clients. For me it was nirvana as I was in control.

Written by Owen McCall01 Aug. 11 22:00

Business partnership?

Many of our service providers aspire to be business partners. Personally, I think it would be great if more of our service providers were partners. I am sure that if we had business partners rather than service providers, we would be able to provide much better service to our users and life would be much easier for my team and me.
This got me thinking, if they want it and I want it why doesn&#8217;t it happen more? As I pondered this, I felt the first thing I needed to do was understand exactly what is meant by the word partnership in the context of an IT supplier and a corporate IT customer? I searched for a definition. For a phrase that is bandied around so much I was surprised to find relatively few definitions of business partnership except for definitions of formal legal partnerships.

Written by Owen McCall05 April 11 22:00

The stress test

It is 8.50 am and you are working on the IT help desk. You receive a panicked call from the chief executive's PA. There is an executive meeting due to start in 10 minutes and she has a number of documents she needs to print for the meeting. The problem is the printer is not working! What do you do?

Written by Owen McCall19 Feb. 11 02:47

Know who you are

As a teenager growing up in rural New Zealand if I ever wanted to go out I needed to borrow my parents' car.

Written by Owen McCall14 Dec. 10 01:56

The Life Game Project

Last year I was invited to breakfast at the Takapuna Beach Cafe by a friend of mine. The purpose of this breakfast was to introduce me to Ian Howard, a friend of his. I turned up to the breakfast with no particular expectations. However, the conversation we had at the cafe that morning has changed my life&#8217;s priorities and I hope it may change yours.
During our conversation, Ian and I discovered that we had a number of core beliefs in common. The most important of these was that education has the power to make the difference in peoples lives. When we say education, we do not mean formal education, or at least, we do not mean only formal education. What we mean is the process that people go through to learn new skills and capabilities. We also share a common belief that most people, and when I say most, I mean virtually everyone, is fundamentally a good person and that the reason they make bad choices is not because they are bad people, but because they do not know any better. That is, they have not learnt the skills they need to be able to make better decisions, often because they have never had the opportunities to learn these skills.

Written by Owen McCall09 Oct. 10 22:00

Insource, outsource, everything as a service

I have spent a long time in and around the IT industry - 24 years and counting. During this time I have been a consultant, lead an outsourcing team and now I am a CIO. As a result I have been both a seller and buyer of services.Currently as the CIO of The Warehouse, I get approached many times a year by vendors who want to sell me something. Some of them (but not many) actually want to help me and my organisation succeed. Trade magazines and online forums are full of articles about the merits of cloud computing and outsourcing. Most of these stories urge CEOs and CIOs to change the way they buy computing. The current theme is that everything should be bought on demand; don't own anything as others can do it better and cheaper. Not so long ago strategic outsourcing and ERP filled the magazines and while the buzz has gone from the media, vendors still knock down doors on a regular basis to impress upon you, your CEO and your team that their services are the ones that will make the difference. It is great to have choice, but how do you decide? Whenever I am approached by a vendor the questions I ask myself are:•<strong> Is the process or functionality being discussed strategic and/or a source of competitive advantage for my organisation?</strong>If the answer is yes then I am unlikely to commit to an externally-provided solution. Why? Because building and maintaining sources of competitive advantage are critical to the future success of the business and core to my job as an executive and as a member of the executive team leading the organisation. While you do need to avoid the tendency to see competitive advantage in everything you do, where it is genuine I will keep that in-house. Because to outsource the most important services, is in effect to outsource the primary responsibility for your job. •<strong> Can the provider meet the service levels that I need? </strong>Many vendors bombard you with a huge list of certifications and performance statistics to show how credible they are. ITIL and CoBIT compliant, ISO X, Y and Z certified, CMM level and so on. Most vendors talk about availability, many are proud of there 99.99 percent or 99.999 percent availability. This list of achievements is impressive and very few corporate IS teams can match the full array of certifications and point to 5 9's availability. The real question however is, does it matter? While some of the services I provide do need to be highly available (Eftpos for example) very few of my services need to be at 99.99 percent. What does matter to me is geographical diversity. I need to provide services into many of New Zealand's small towns. Greymouth, Alexandra and Kaitaia for example. The point is, I don't want generic solutions and certifications I want my specific needs met.• <strong>Are your services cheaper than what I can provide myself for the required level of service? </strong>It will not be a surprise that cost is a major factor in any deliberation of how to source. I have had many discussions with sales teams where they have tried to convince me that cost is not all that matters. There are the vast array of value adding services that they can bring. Value adding to who? As the services that I am looking for an external party to provide are unlikely to be strategic or critical to my competitive advantage (see question 1!), cost for the agreed level of service that I need IS THE criteria and anything past commodity prices is added cost for no value. • <strong>Are you prepared to share my risk?</strong>Most vendors are very good when talking about risk early in a sales cycle. Most vendors however, want no part of risk when it comes to the detail of the contract. While you can never truly "outsource" risk as it is my business that suffers when a service fails, suppliers need to recognise the critical nature of what they do for their clients. They also need to demonstrate they believe in the quality of what is on offer and the value of those long lists of certifications. The best way I know to do this is to put some skin in the game and agree to put things right when they go wrong. So, how do you decide? What will you have to pay in order to meet the required level of service? n<strong>Owen McCall is CIO of The Warehouse in New Zealand. Reach him at and through his</strong><a href=""><strong> blog</strong></a>

Written by Owen McCall21 April 10 04:17

The number cruncher’s guide to delivering IT value

I&#8217;m a qualified accountant. I even sometimes read the Accountants Journal &#8230; there, I&#8217;ve said it!
As an accountant and a CIO I am intrigued by the debate within the IT community about how businesses should account for IT. Should it be a cost centre? A profit centre? Or a stand alone, semi-independent business unit? From what I can tell, the argument is that how an organisation chooses to do its accounting determines, or is an indicator of, how IT is seen strategically in the organisation. The logic seems to be that if you want to be an IT team that is strategic and adds value, then you need to be a profit centre as a minimum, or better yet a semi-autonomous business.

Written by Owen McCall08 March 10 22:00

Delivering real value

At the Warehouse, we run regular courses on "Managing successful projects". I often get asked to provide support for these courses on behalf of the executive, by welcoming the participants and leading one of the sessions. The irony is that the session they always get me to lead is "What leads to project failure"? During this session we interactively identify why projects fail. There are many reasons why projects can fail. However, I always emphasise what I believe to be two key causes of project failure.

Written by Owen McCall16 Dec. 09 09:33

Paid to do nothing

One night after a long day at work I came home wanting to chill out and relax. As a father of four that is seldom an option. This particular night I arrived home right on bedtime and soon found myself in the middle of stories and good night cuddles. In our house the bedtime ritual usually includes a period of time where we ask each other questions about our day. On this particular night my daughter asked me, &#8220;Dad, what do you do at work?&#8221;
This was not the first time she had asked me this question. On this particular night, being tired and not really thinking, I gave a glib &#8220;well, I get paid to do nothing&#8221;. I followed this up with what I thought was a pretty good attempt at describing what my job as a leader of a fairly large team actually is. It included an analogy between the principal of her school and what I did at work.

Written by Owen McCall06 Oct. 09 22:00

The power of focus

The technology industry, indeed business in general, is enamoured with innovation. Any business-oriented magaszine you pick up talks about innovation and how to be more innovative. Innovate or die is our mantra and we are constantly on the look out for bright ideas. If you judge us by our actions, it seems we all believe that the person with the most ideas will win and all others are doomed.
The result is we are constantly looking for and implementing new initiatives. If something is wrong then start a project to fix it. If your competition seems to be better at something than you are then start a project to fix it. If there is a hot, new technology out there you better have an innovation fund available to be able to explore it and get ahead. Change is constant and if you can&#8217;t change faster than your competition then you will lose.

Written by Owen McCall09 Aug. 09 22:00