10 things that CIOs can learn from Angry Birds

Daniel W. Rasmus
4 April, 2011
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I have been involved in deep research on Angry Birds, having become one of the top 300 players on the iPad HD Free version, out of a community of over 1 million players. That may be sad, but then again, it is deep research. Every time I fling a bird I think about a CIO (no, I don’t mean it that way). Here are the preliminary results of my research: Ten lessons from Angry Birds that will make you a better CIO.

1. You have to play to figure out the rules

The only way one learns how to defeat a level in Angry Birds is to play. The same is true of technology. I still hear CIOs shutting down social media or giving out multiple phones because current technology doesn’t fit the corporate architecture or poses too many risks to intellectual property or customer information. CIOs need to keep in mind that if they don’t engage with emerging technology and allow people to use it in the context of actual work, no one will learn its limitations, its risks or the opportunities it presents.

2. People succeed best when their unique talents are recognised

Every bird in Angry Birds possess a unique set of talents. Fat black-and-white ones drop eggs and ricochet off walls; triangular yellow ones cut through things while tiny blue ones explode into a trifecta of glass shattering shimmers. The CIO also needs to be the CTM, or Chief Talent Manager, by helping people find the right balance between passion and organisational need. This recognition of uniqueness is an important component in developing good relationships with Gen X and Millennial talent. CIOs also need to understand, and anticipate, future competencies so they can build a talent portfolio ready to meet any challenge.

3. You can’t recover from a really bad start

Cut your losses, restart and try again. Experienced Angry Birds players can tell from the micro-second the first bird leaves the launcher if they are on the road to a higher score or a waste of time. If they detect the later, they usually cut their losses and restart the game. CIOs share this intuition about what is and isn’t working, but they still let people fumble through projects that elicit no passion, try to deploy technology in the wrong place at the wrong time, still let technology try to overcome cultural momentum. CIOs need to be courageous and cut their loses sooner than later when intuition tells them they don’t have the right team or approach in place then reconsider the tactics and strategies and start again.

4. Different problems require different specialists

The Rovio game designers built Angry Birds scenes from virtual elements like clouds and wood, concrete slabs and triangles of glass. Every material reflects different physical properties, and each one reacts in its own way to the different birds species. This makes the game more complex and more interesting. Unfortunately, being a CIO sometimes seems more complex and more interesting because technology follows the same pattern. Gone are the days when you can have a “programmer” fix a problem. User interfaces, networking, debugging and several other disciplines within development alone, require special skills, knowledge and talent. Compound that with operations, end user CRM, help desk, ERP, mobility and a host of the functions and the permutations of talent become clear. In Angry Birds you can’t outsource talent, but in an era of tight budgets, CIOs may.

5. Blowing something up isn’t necessarily felt everywhere

Angry Birds contains its own unique version of physics, but practical experience still seems to fit: if you drop a bomb too far away, or in an area with a lot of protection, you won’t hit the target. For CIOs, think politics. If you want to implement broad change, you have to think about the business, and the IT environment as a holistic ecosystem. You can’t just fiddle with a solution in the corner and hope that it will disburse throughout the organization. It takes a clear understanding of organizational physics to make change stick.

I remember several years ago working on an e-mail migration plan. Many little conversations led to a lot of commitment without action. It wasn’t until the team went to the CEO and convinced him change was necessary that change happened. The CEO sent a note to his directs: I will stop communicating with you unless you are on the same e-mail system that I use. Systemic change occurred, e-mail migrations took place, and all if it occurred rather rapidly. CIOs who aspire to be good change agents need to deploy their political weapons with precision in order to create lasting change.

6. Most improvements are incremental

Achieving a high score in Angry Birds is hard. Most of the time when you clear a level the score is worse than your high score, and many times you don’t even clear the level at all. If you want a high score you have to be patient and accept incremental improvement by applying lessons learned from past attempts. Every once in a while, you change a strategy or accidentally discover a new tactic that results in an exponential improvement in the score, but that is very rare. And then the pattern repeats, re-reaching the high score level is hard, surpassing it even harder.

CIOs need to recognise that high performing teams are hard to improve. If the teams are not high performers, they are likely to improve little-by-little rather than make a great leap forward. The same is true of customer satisfaction or system reliability. Just because incremental improvement is the norm, that doesn’t mean one should stop looking for new approaches. A radical breakthrough will pay big dividends. Focus on tactics, but don’t forget to also be strategic—and don’t fail to recognise innovation when it occurs.

7. Just because you’ve mastered one task doesn’t make you master of all

All Angry Birds screens are arranged differently, but they share many similarities. Unique configurations within the levels, from the interconnected structure of materials to the arrangement of the scene, require strategies. As mentioned above, IT has grown into an umbrella around many specialties. Being good at one aspect of IT does not mean you are good at everything.

For CIOs that means recognising personal strengths and weaknesses and making sure you have a staff that complements your knowledge. For the organisation, it means admitting when you don’t know something, and either committing the time to experimentation and learning, or bringing in a trusted partner. Don’t assume that success in one project will translate to the next. Make sure you ask your organisation to ask and answer the question: “what is different this time, and how are we planning for those differences” before proceeding.

8. You can never do the same thing exactly the same way

An analog to number 7. Even when doing exactly the same thing in the same way is the right answer, it probably won’t generate the same result. In Angry Birds, you have to think about launcher tension and aim, and then in some cases, a second action that causes a bird to drop a bomb or turn on its after burners. Getting the timing on all elements, over the course of multiple volleys, exactly the same is nearly impossible.

Think about common IT projects, like PC deployment. The repeat won’t be a repeat. CIOs need to encourage broad learning and experience so people can adapt to change effectively. And CIOs also have to avoid placing the unfair pressure on their staff that comes from naively thinking tomorrow is just another today.

9. Some goals require more birds

Some levels in Angry Birds can be accomplished using one bird very efficiently. Hit a crossbeam at just the right place and the structures tumble one in on one other. In others, it takes all the birds at your disposal just to clear the scene. CIOs need to understand the complexity of a project before selecting the team, or they need to be willing to learn quickly. An apparently simple project may be hiding unforeseen complications. When those occur, CIOs need to reset and invest new resources (or, as in 3 above, restart all together). IT successes hinge on actual rather than abstract complexity.

It has been my experience that the implementation, deployment and adoption side of IT projects are usually the most complex, and are also the most understaffed. CIOs with in-house built systems ready to deploy, or newly acquired systems, often face huge obstacles when it comes to realising the value of their investments. That’s because they haven’t admitted that they need more birds to get the end users up-to-speed.

10. There is more than one way to win

A lob or a straight shot. Start from the back and end with the front. Each approach in Angry Birds can potentially result in a solid score. If you get locked into one approach though, you might never discover how to achieve the maximum score. CIOs should be open to new ideas about how to use existing technology, and receptive to suggestions about how emerging technologies could benefit the organisation.

Taking the safe route every time is the antithesis of innovation. If you really want to win, you need to take risks. IT can be a competitive differentiator, or it can be a form of just making due. The CIO capable of distinguishing between those two, and selecting the former, will find them, and their organisations, on the leader board.

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