Shapiro, Stephen (No. 2)

steveshapiro_web.jpgStephen Shapiro is the author of Personality Poker: The Playing Card Tool for Driving High-Performance Teamwork and Innovation. The former leader of Accenture’s 20,000-person “process excellence” practice, Stephen Shapiro speaks on innovation around the world. He is a sought-after advisor to dozens of Fortune 500 companies, including Staples, GE, BP, Johnson & Johnson, and Fidelity Investments. He is also InnoCentive Inc.’s Chief Innovation Evangelist.

PersonalityPoker asks ...

What is Personality Poker?

Stephen Shapiro: Personality Poker is a card game I developed a number of years ago that's specifically designed to help create high-performing innovation teams inside organizations.

And how does it do that?

SS: Well, it's based on the premise that most organizations are cults. What I mean by that is organizations are designed, because of their culture, to hire people who fit the mold. What happens is we create highly efficient organizations comprised of a bunch of yes-men rather than creating an organization which embraces innovation and divergent points of view. Personality Poker is based on the belief that we need to have different types of innovation styles inside an organization in order to more effectively innovate.

Some people might just do a personality test to figure out what the people are like, but you're actually trying to determine personalities based on their skills and how they fit in to an innovation framework. Right?

SS: That's true. Although the concept transcends the world of business—we've had people play Personality Poker at parties with friends and families and their children—it was initially built to support innovation inside organizations. The styles map specifically to the steps of the innovation process.

And I'd say the other thing, in addition to our focus on innovation, is it's the process that makes it different than nearly every other personality test out there.

What is it? How does it work?

SS: 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 with other people.

We go through this process with the objective being to get five cards where the words best describe how you see yourself. Based on the suits, the colors, 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.

So it has all these attributes in this card game.

You're given five cards out of a deck of 52. How do you end up finding those attributes that apply to you? Of those first five cards you have as you're playing this game, none of those might describe you.

SS: Very true. It's a group activity typically. Although there is a solitaire version where you can go card by card and put them into piles, the most frequent use is with groups.

Imagine you have a group of 50 people that work together. So we now have 250 cards—50 people with five cards each—in the room. We have people trade. Let's say, for example, I have the disciplined card, which is totally not like me. There's almost certainly somebody in the room that is disciplined 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. But then we do another step where we actually just throw cards all over the place and allow people to improve their hand. So it's a two-step process. We want to make sure people have time to get the best cards possible.

You just throw everything down on the floor, and people get down and crawl until they find cards that describe them?

SS: Exactly. Then with teams that work together, we add one additional step. While they are on their hands and knees, if someone sees a card with a word that reminds them of someone else in the room, we ask them to take that card and give it to that person as a "gift." We quickly see how we see ourselves, but we also get to see how others see us. The primary objective of this game is to not just understand strengths, but it's actually to look at the dynamics of the team to understand what our personal blind spots are and to figure out who we could best partner with. The process of the trading helps to facilitate that conversation.

Then this is what makes this significantly different from a Myers-Briggs where you determine your personality. That's done in a vacuum as opposed to yours which is a game, and so it's done collectively. Is that right?

SS: Absolutely. There are actually several advantages. When you are in the mode of play, you don't over-intellectualize things, and so we quiet the judgmental part of the brain. When you take a written quiz, you actually can over-analyze things to the point where you are no longer as accurate in your judgment of yourself. In playing a game, you don't think too much, you just do—it's actually more fun.

We have cards in there—the two, three, and four cards of each suit—that represent the unproductive behaviors. For example, being organized is great, but being anal retentive—the three of clubs—is taking organization to an extreme.

Because it is a game, people are happy to make fun of themselves, and others. It makes difficult conversations much less confrontational. It is an enjoyable process for people, and they have a conversation around it. Unlike most personality tests where you basically get just a combination of letters, a color, or some other descriptor, here you get a hand of cards that describe you the way you see yourself as well as the suits, the colors, and the numbers.

But aren't we, as humans, notoriously bad at understanding ourselves?

SS: We are, absolutely, which is why there are two other components to the way that we assess personalities. One is, obviously, the way others see us.


SS: There's a whole conversation that we have around the impact of others' views on our behaviors—how other people see us, something called the Pygmalion effect. If people see you one particular way, it will actually begin to shape your behavior, even if it's not who you want to be. If you are known as a good planner but you don't really like plans, the odds are you will be given a lot of planning work. And if you continue to do a good job, this will reinforce the perception that others have of you. Personality Poker is an opportunity to break the cycle and to align your work with your preferences.

Because every personality test on the planet pretty much tests the conscious mind, no matter what you answer, there's always going to be a conscious aspect. Therefore we developed a version of Personality Poker that doesn't use the cards, but that's done on the computer and that actually tests the subconscious mind. It's something developed by Harvard and has been proven to be an incredibly accurate predictor of your personality when you are stressed or under time constraints. Most people act differently and less consciously when under pressure. When you're not as stressed, you can think more rationally, and therefore, your self-assessment is reasonably accurate.

Say that again?

SS: A test that accesses your conscious mind tends to be more accurate at assessing who you are when you're not under stress. The reason is you have the ability to choose your behaviors and actions in those situations. But when you become stressed, you tend to move towards your automatic unconscious.

For the two, three, and four cards in the deck we have, for example, disorganized, scattered, bossy, oversensitive. These words are not weaknesses, but they're a byproduct of your strength. We have these cards in the deck because most people are notoriously bad at trying to assess who they are when they are at their best because we learn and adapt. But we tend to know when we are at our worst. So we use the two, three, and four cards as a really good lens on our unproductive behaviors, which tends to give us a sign of truly who we are.

Is this the equivalent of that saying, "your strength is also your weakness," or not exactly?

SS: I guess in some respects it is. When people go in for a job interview and they're asked, "Well, what's your greatest weakness?" "Oh, well, I care too much." It's like that.

The two, three, and four cards are not representative of your weaknesses. These cards describe what happens when you become overly dogmatic about your strength. It is your strength on steroids. But it's not your weakness because your weakness is actually your opposite suit. For example, the spades are the really smart people. The corresponding two, three, and four cards are like skeptical and know-it-all. That's really becoming overly analytical.

But the thing that most people who are spades lack is empathy. They tend to lack the heart side of things, and so that's not their unproductive behavior (the two, three, four), but that's actually the blind spot.

When people play this—you've obviously played this with thousands of people by now?

SS: I think the last count is probably close to about 30,000 people.

I'm just wondering when you play this with people, are they initially overwhelmed or do they "get it" because it's a card game?

SS: Obviously, I'm going to be a little biased in my answer on this. But people tell me that in literally a matter of minutes—the trading process lasts only seven to ten minutes—they end up with a scarily accurate assessment of their personality. But more importantly, it helps them understand their blind spots and how they can work more effectively with other people in the room.

Because at the end of the day, what your personality is is much less important than what the personalities are of the other people in the room and what the relationships are between those people.

Because the endgame here is for people who work together to figure out which of them work best together innovatively. Is that it?

SS: Right. There are four key principles. One is that each individual inside the organization needs to "play to their strong suit," that is, figure out what they do best.

The second thing is to make sure that the organization "plays with a full deck." What that means is because of our cultures, we tend to hire people who are pretty much the same. So we need to start looking at how to bring divergent points of view into the organization. We need to play with a full deck.

The third thing then is to "deal out the work" which means we want a divide-and-conquer strategy that allows us to efficiently deliver new innovations.

The last principle is to "shuffle the deck." We want to encourage creative tension at particular points in the innovation process because, again, that's where the breakthrough solutions come.

When you play this with folks, what kind of changes are you seeing in the organization that are a reflection of having played Personality Poker? Are people playing the game and then changing teams around or changing the way they operate?

SS: Absolutely. The simplest change is a behavioral one. People are more willing to partner with people who have a different style—and appreciate their contribution. This one shift can have a massive impact on performance.

We also see change in work assignments. People get to see how they are perceived and why they get the work they do. For example, if you are a creative diamond but people see you as a club who is very good at planning, people inside the organization will give you a lot of club work, and it's going to reinforce itself. But by playing Personality Poker, you can break that cycle and allow people to be assigned the most appropriate work.

The most important part actually seems to be around the culture, because not only do people have personalities but organizations have personalities.

What do you mean?

SS: Every company has a personality. For example, engineering-based companies are often spade cultures—analytical organizations. Conversely, non-profits tend to be hearts. Prior to playing Personality Poker, it is typical to hire and retain people who fit the company's personality. But afterwards we see a shift.

Companies begin to value people who are the outliers. So if you are a marketing and branding agency and hire a lot of diamonds, you might not naturally value the organized clubs. But as part of this process, you begin to do things that will actually embrace and include them.

They understand that a group or a company composed mostly of diamonds is going to come up with a lot of ideas, but they're not going to implement those ideas well.

SS: Exactly. We need all of the styles.

When I speak to the folks at NASA, I'll say, "If you're working on an aerospace engineering problem and you have a hundred aerospace engineers working on it, adding the 101st aerospace engineer is not going to make that much of a difference."

If you're working on a creative problem and you've got a hundred creative people working on it, well, there's probably a point where you're not going to get something new out of it. And even if you did get something new, you wouldn't have anybody to implement it, so you need it for a whole variety of reasons.

How do human resources people see this Personality Poker game?

SS: HR people love all these types of things, because HR people are predominately hearts, and hearts love things that are about people and are fun, and so it tends to resonate with them.

They don't see it as too much of a game and not enough hard science?

SS: I haven't seen that, and, you know, there's a whole section in the book on the scientific validity behind this. There's a big distinction between being scientifically valid and being useful. Most tests out there are actually designed to be valid, but they have little practical application in the real world. What we focused on is what is going to actually make the biggest impact on an organization.

We find that most organizations very quickly see—within a matter of minutes—how they can broadly drive change inside the organization. I'll give you an example. One 25,000-person organization I'm working with has had every single person in the company take a personality test. And this personality test roughly maps to Personality Poker.

But now I'm going into that organization and playing Personality Poker with a large percentage of those people because they feel as though this actually helps take something which has been conceptual and turns it into something that people seem to get and internalize.

How is that going?

SS: We're just getting started. So far we did it with three groups and the response has been fantastic. Therefore we're expanding the reach and will get close to about thousand people very soon, and will go deeper over time.

We've spoken a lot about innovation, and you mention early on in the book that creativity and innovation get confused and used interchangeably when they shouldn't. Can you clarify those two terms? It's an important distinction.

SS: That's a great point. From my perspective, creativity is about the idea; it's about the new way of doing things. Creativity tends to be the realm of the diamonds, because the diamonds are the creative individuals. Innovation is an end-to-end process that actually starts with a problem, challenge, or opportunity whose solution is going to have the greatest impact on the organization. It also involves planning and implementation, and the engagement of the organization. This is important because ideas that don't get implemented don't create value.

Creativity is the idea. Innovation is the end-to-end process which brings that idea to fruition so that it creates value.

It's about solving the right problem. I've heard you say that the biggest issue in an organization is to solve the right problem. Meaning that you think that organizations are spending a lot of time and resources solving the wrong problem.

SS: I love to quote Einstein, who reputedly said, "If I had an hour to save the world, I'd spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions."

From my perspective, most organizations are spending 60 minutes finding solutions to problems that don't matter. The reason for this is organizations get enamored with ideas. They get enamored with creativity. They confuse creativity with innovation, so what happens is they ask their employees, "Hey, give us your ideas," and they end up with employees' opinions.

Everybody's got an opinion on how to improve the company. Everybody's got an opinion of what they should do differently. This is not about opinions. This is actually about figuring out what your customers need, what your strategy dictates, and actually translating those into the things that will create the greatest value as opposed to just asking everybody for their two cents. Most organization seem to act as though they want everybody's opinions and that's why you get so much noise in the system and end up with an extremely inefficient innovation process.

If you could play Personality Poker with anyone in the world, who would it be?

SS: I would love to play Personality Poker on with the women on The View. What I love about The View is that it is a show built around women with fundamentally different personalities, and that's what makes it so entertaining. If you had a show that everybody thought the same way, it would probably be pretty boring.

Who is on The View?

SS: Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, Sherri Shepherd, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck.

So the answer to the question would be the five people from The View?

SS: Well, I think any group where there are these interesting clashes among them. But clearly there are all kinds of conflicts between those folks on The View.

Anything else we need to know?

SS: There are two key points that we like to address when we do a Personality Poker session. One is to bust the myth that opposites attract. There's nothing further from the truth. In fact, opposites repel. Therefore inside organizations, we basically have people who think alike because we hire based on competency and chemistry. We want skilled people who think like us. I've seen people during recruiting say, "Well, that person's great, but they don't fit the culture" or "They don't fit the mold." And—

That's just the reason you want them. Then you would say to that guy, "That's the exact person you should hire."

SS: Exactly. Or if it really is going to cause too much of a problem for the organization, find a way to partner with external organizations that complement you.


SS: The other important point is that because we see the world through our eyes and the way we see personalities, we tend to live through something that's called the Golden Rule which is, "Do unto others as we want them to do unto us."

But I say, "Who really cares about you?" It's really about what the other person wants. So when you recognize that each suit likes to interact, be motivated, and be complimented in different ways, then you can actually tailor your communications, tailor your praise, tailor your performance reviews, basically tailor the way you operate to the way the other person likes to think, and that creates a more harmonious team.

Excellent. Thank you, Steve.

SS: My pleasure.

Email: Steve {at} –
Twitter (personal): @StephenShapiro
Twitter (for book): @PersPokerBook
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