In this book review Paul Hobcraft looks at “Personality Poker: The Playing Card Tool for Driving High-Performance Teamwork and Innovation” by Stephen M Shapiro.

Steve is a former leader of Accenture’s 20,000-person “process excellence” practice, he speaks on innovation around the world and has written a couple of books, one was especially helpful for me in relating to innovation: 24/7 Innovation, written in 2002. He is also InnoCentive Inc.’s Chief Innovation Evangelist.

This book Personality Poker took me a little time to relate to. It is a playing card tool and includes a deck of your own personality poker cards attached to the book, all helping you to identify and understand your innovation style. The fact that the book is 240 odd pages long to explain in Steve’s words “a fun game” took me by surprise. Steve has really researched this, explained it in an easy-to-read style, played by countless people to validate it before he published this book.

It can be played by an individual but its real value is within groups so everyone can quickly understand how they contribute to innovation and more importantly, the innovation styles of others. So it goes beyond simply being an ice breaker, it helps you quickly create and establish a more powerful organization that is more fit for innovation. The whole event is around 45 minutes but in grasping the value, it has a contribution beyond just a game to the organization for shaping the best combinations within teams. You quickly gain this understanding of what, where, who and how individuals can play their unique role within any innovation initiative.

The basic idea behind the book

Imagine a deck of 52 playing cards that look like poker cards you’d see in any casino. The only difference is written across the faces, in addition to the suits and numbers, are words that describe different personality styles. Words include things like competitive, creative, and empathetic. These words are used to describe people. People are given five random cards when they start the game, and they trade off with other people with the objective of getting five cards with the words that best describe how you see yourself.

Based on the suits, the colours, and the numbers of the cards you end up with in your hand, you will be able to assess pretty much everything about your personality. It will tell you what your personality style is like, who you should partner with to be more successful, why certain people annoy you, and in particular why the people you like the least are probably the people you need the most.

Different ways to play this

It’s a group activity, although there is a solitaire version where you can go card by card and put them into piles, but the real value is within groups.

Imagine you have a group of 25 people that work together. So we now have 125 cards—25 people with five cards each—in the room. The idea is to trade. Let’s say, for example, I have the card driven that I feel is totally unlike me, there is almost certainly somebody in the room that is driven and that card would improve their hand. And they probably have a card that will improve my hand.

We go through this process of trading, finding mutually beneficial trades in a given time scale. But then it is suggested you complete another step where you actually just throw cards all over the place and allow people to improve their hand. So it’s a two-step process. You want to make sure people have time to get the best cards possible, have fun and learn from each other as they search for their ideal cards.

The issue is not to get fixated on your selected word cards but to lead you through to your primary innovation style and your orientation (inward or outward facing), so you quickly see how and where you are the best fit within any (diverse) team. Equally knowing who has a different style so you can find better ways to complement each other through this diversity

The book’s structure

There are six parts to the book. Part one is a pre-game warm up and a foundation. Part two is getting started, learning how to play and finding your style and learning the rules to playing the game. The rest of the book explains the outcomes. Part three provides the details for each of the four primary innovation styles to help you explore the meaning, different motivations, communication styles and approaches that each of us typically takes that need understanding. Part four is the application of these styles to optimize and organize teams for a more balanced result of personalities. Part five provides a separate chapter on each of the four styles covering a lot of detail, discussing diversity in teams, styles, how to handle these and gain an increasing appreciation of the contribution of yourself and others and why we are different. There is a good chapter (seven) on innovation styles and the innovation process that is most valuable to work through.

The value from the book

This game is significantly different from a Myers-Briggs or other personality testing methods used today to determine your personality. Many of these tests are often completed in a vacuum; they can take time to get the feedback whereas with this card game it is done collectively on the spot. You don’t use so much the judgmental part of the brain as you would when you take a written quiz, you just simply do. People partly make fun of themselves, and others. It turns sometimes those difficult conversations into less confrontational and they have a more open conversation around the results and what they mean to each other.

The end result is for people to understand what is their innovation personality which will in turn help them to figure out who works best together innovatively, and who is an opposite, and begin to see each person’s value and contribution to the innovation process.

My thoughts on the book and the game

There is an awful lot of research and validation that has gone into this game. Steve talks of the science of personality poker in his appendix; he got many people involved, he experimented and then refined the game to what it is today. I think many organizations will enjoy this, not just to quickly gain involvement but to get a fast, effective understanding of different styles. Knowing these reduces one of the biggest problems, getting people to understand each other and recognizing differences and their respected attributes.

As a book it covers a lot, although Steve encourages reading through the book I feel many people might glance over certain parts, impatient to play but lose the thinking and more importantly the balance in interpretation. I felt playing this by myself the book did not give me enough of an explanation, whereas as it is really designed for team participation it does an extensive job of explaining this.

Clearly the words are designed for English speakers and even within global organizations using English as the communicating language it would be helpful to have a native speaker on hand to clarify any meanings for specific words, so requiring a little more preparation for that question “what does this really mean?” For instance, it would be interesting to see how different nationalities might interpret ‘anal retentive’ as their personality. This term by the way, is used conversationally to describe a person with such attention to detail that the obsession becomes an annoyance to others- sound familiar?

The book and the game certainly provide a novel way to tackle personality and getting any team ready for innovation. It is certainly worth playing to obtain some great insights about you and your colleagues and get that working relationship off on a better understanding of our often unique differences.

By Paul Hobcraft

About the author

Paul Hobcraft is the founder of Agility Innovation Specialists that focuses on Innovation exclusively through research and consulting. Paul spends much of his time between Asia and Europe bridging East & West in cultural and innovation understanding, after living for 16 years in Asia until 2008. He has been in general management in a number of multinationals dealing primarily with start ups, turnarounds and restructures. He holds an MBA from Henley Management College, UK. His present research involves 35 different innovation themes including: the dynamics & fitness landscaping for innovation; sustaining institutional capability for innovation focusing on climate, culture with the emphasis on renewal, impact, & catalysing innovation; the required social systems, context, capability & competence building. Paul is presently located in Switzerland but maintains a base also in Singapore.