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Becoming Better Collaborators: Lessons from Hanabi

Visualize this, you're part of a team tasked with creating the perfect fireworks display, but there's a catch—you can't see your own cards. Instead, you rely on your teammates to give you hints about what's in your hand, and you do the same for them. This is the premise of Hanabi, a cooperative card game that requires players to communicate effectively, trust each other implicitly, and adapt to ever-changing circumstances.


I was first introduced to Hanabi by Llewellyn Falco. I became fascinated with how playing the game helped us understand each other better and grew our trust and friendship. Watching him take risks, make decisions, and exercise patience made me appreciate his contributions as a collaborator. It created a safe space for my engagement and showed me how my own communication, decisions, adaptation, and risk-taking directly contributed to our interdependence and mutual trust, resulting in a better game.


Shortly after, my friend and collaborator April Jefferson invited me to co-facilitate a workshop on the power of retrospectives, using a game of Hanabi as a backdrop for reflection and continuous improvement. Through her and our collaborative endeavors, I saw how this game and other cooperative games not only enable new learning but can also build our capabilities as better collaborators.


Using Hanabi as an example, let's explore how cooperative games can make us better collaborators in the workplace.


1. Becoming Effective Communicators: In Hanabi, players must give strategic hints to guide their teammates without revealing too much. Picture trying to tell someone to play the red five card without actually saying it. This teaches the importance of clear, precise, and actionable communication. Just like in the game, providing the right amount of information at the right time can help your team succeed without causing confusion.


2. Trusting and Being Trustworthy: You need to trust that your teammates in Hanabi are giving you the best hints possible, and they need to trust that you’ll make the right moves. This mutual reliance is crucial in collaborative work environments. When team members trust each other’s intentions and expertise, it creates a strong foundation for successful collaboration. If your colleague says, “Trust me on this one,” you’ll know they have the team’s best interest at heart.


3. Reflecting to Improve: Each game of Hanabi ends with either a dazzling display or a learning experience (or both). After each round, players often discuss what went well and what didn’t. This immediate reflection helps improve future performance. Similarly, in the workplace, regular reflection on projects and processes allows teams to learn from their experiences and continuously improve.


4. Adapting to the Situation at Hand: Leadership in Hanabi isn’t fixed—it shifts based on who has the most pertinent information. This fluidity teaches us to be adaptable and ready to lead or follow as the situation demands. In the workplace, embracing this flexibility can enhance team dynamics, allowing for more effective responses to changing circumstances.


5. Committing to Shared Goals and Collective Success: In Hanabi, everyone’s efforts are aimed at creating the perfect fireworks show. This shared goal aligns the team’s actions and fosters a sense of unity, but committing to those goals is what leads to collective success. Similarly, in the workplace, having clear and shared objectives is essential. If you are not fully in and committed to them, you may as well be out.


6. Celebrating Wins and Good Moves: Every successful hint or play in Hanabi is a small victory worth celebrating. Recognizing these mini-achievements keeps everyone motivated and builds trust. In the workplace, celebrating both big and small wins helps maintain high morale and reinforces positive behaviors.


7. Sacrificing for the Greater Good: Sometimes in Hanabi, you might need to discard a potentially valuable card to help your teammate succeed. This teaches the value of strategic sacrifice and selflessness. In the workplace, prioritizing the team’s success over individual glory fosters a supportive and collaborative atmosphere.


8. Taking Strategic Risks: Taking calculated risks is part of the strategy in Hanabi—sometimes you have to play a card on a hunch. This mirrors the need for strategic risk-taking in the workplace. Encouraging informed risks can lead to innovation and progress, creating a culture of creativity and resilience.


9. Ensuring Shared Understanding: Success in Hanabi relies on a shared understanding of the game’s principles and strategies. In the workplace, having a common framework for collaboration ensures everyone is aligned, making teamwork more effective and cohesive.


10. Having Fun and Staying Engaged: Above all, Hanabi is fun and engaging, which makes players want to come back for more. Bringing this sense of enjoyment and engagement into the workplace can boost productivity and morale. When collaboration is enjoyable, people are more likely to be invested and proactive.


Cooperative games like Hanabi offer more than just entertainment; they provide valuable lessons in collaborative leadership. By applying these insights, we can build a workplace culture rooted in trust, adaptability, and shared success.


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