Build and lead your team, the Dungeons and Dragons way

One of the formative hobbies of my youth was playing Dungeons and Dragons (as well as other “role-playing games”). If you aren’t familiar with RPGs (and if you aren’t, you’re missing out), they are lengthy sessions where you and friends gather around a table playing as characters you have created and as you react to what “Game Master” tells you about what your characters are encountering, you gain skills and experience that improves your characters. Dungeon and Dragons and RPGs like it were the precursors to modern computer games such as World of Warcraft… only D&D was more low-tech, more conversational, and required more Cheetos and Mountain Dew.

I usually took the role of the Game or “Dungeon Master” (or DM), which was great “training” that improved my communication and creative skills. As I started revisiting Dungeons and Dragons with my sons, I realized that D&D provides more than just a fun way to spend a long afternoon. It’s a great way to build and manage your team in a work environment.

My premise is simple: Applying principles and practices from D&D can help you build a better team as well as manage them more effectively. Here’s some of the things that I learned from years of playing that you can apply to your working group:

Build a balanced team (of “adventurers”)

Characters in D&D have core ability levels, numbers from 3 to 18 that represent how good they are at key things. These ability levels are used in saving throws during key situations in the game. The basic abilities are: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma. Additional abilities were added in later editions of the games, but the core rules still use these six.

Obviously, in most business environments, Dexterity or Constitution aren’t very important… so these six abilities won’t work. But ranking potential or existing employees using other key abilities CAN help you get a sense of who they are and what they can bring to the team. I suggest the following to get you started:

Communication: How adept are they at writing or communicating? Can they present to your bosses if need be?
Domain Knowledge: Do they know your business? Can they hit the ground running or do they need ramp-up training?
Charisma: Can they charm their way out of a problem or a potential customer?
Problem Solving: Can they solve problems and get things done?
Initiative: Can they take the lead and “own” projects?
Comprehension: Can they “get” something the first time it’s explained, or do they need multiple walk-throughs?

Take these, or define the abilities that are important to you. Once you have, objectively evaluate candidates or current employees against them. You don’t even need to use the D&D scale… keep it simple, use a scale from 1 to 10. Once you identify the key abilities you can look at what your team really needs and recruit accordingly. Look at the experience and other skills, obviously… but defining the short list of key abilities you need can help you build the group you need to get to success.

Treat your “players” differently

Each person in your team has a different background and experience. You can’t treat everyone equally, no matter how much people say you can. Junior people need more of your time and guidance and senior people often need more autonomy and freedom from directing. When you manage a D&D game you often have a group that is a mix of different “experience levels,” with some Level 3 characters and a couple of Level 5 or Level 6 characters.

As a DM, you would never throw a Level 10 monster up against a Level 3 characters… that would be sadistic, and end the fun right away. Use that lesson in real life… don’t give a junior team member a senior project or problem to solve. Give them challenges, to be sure, but don’t give them a herculean task that they can’t successfully accomplish.

Don’t force someone to “level up” if they don’t want to

Though the point of D&D is to “level up” and build your characters skills, power and wealth as much as possible, many players find a happy balance of skills and wealth and stop “adventuring” so much. The same is true in real life, where team-members often become content with their position and stop trying so hard. This is to be expected and a consideration about what to do when resources are assigned to projects.

If you have a team where high performance and continued development is expected, you may need to consider leaving contented team members behind… to guard the Keep, or something like that.

What is your quest?

We all have projects to do, large and small… and many projects involve collaboration between team members or the engagement of the whole team. Just like when you begin a classic quest in Dungeons and Dragons, you should spend some time preparing your team for the adventure.

What is the goal (of the quest/project)?
What do you need (to accomplish the goal)?
Who do you need? What skills in your team are important?

These are somewhat obvious, but important activities to plan out your team’s efforts and help set everyone up for success.

Collaborate on big decisions

When faced with a puzzle that needs to be decoded, or a giant monster that needs to be defeated, the team that collaborates and works together succeeds more often than not. When a big decision has to be made, don’t just do it alone – involve your team in the conversation and get their ideas. As the team leader, be prepared to make the final call, but get as much input as you can when possible.

Tell stories

I’ve written and spoken a lot about the power of storytelling, and I won’t repeat those points here. Simply, we are wired to respond to stories, and explaining situations to your team in the form of stories makes information more approachable and helps people pay more attention. The best Dungeon Masters are master storytellers, painting a picture with words that exceeds any real-world image that could be provided. The best leaders are also the best tellers of interesting tales.

Have fun!

They don’t call it “work” for nothing. Work is… well, work. But you should never pass up the opportunity to make things fun for your team. A Dungeon Master who does nothing but push the group through one unimaginative dungeon after another will quickly bore the players, and many will stop playing. Are you a boss that does the same thing? Well, stop. Freshen things up, give people opportunities to be creative and have fun and you will have a happy more productive team.