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One Entrepreneur’s Wild Ride in Game-Based Learning

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

Have you or a friend ever had an idea for an App? I’m often asked about app development projects and how I got into gamification. In this article I share a brief summary of this entrepreneur’s 10+ year accidental product development journey.

This is a clip from when I spoke about my journey at a recent conference.

You can get the whole discussion through the playlist on YouTube.

It's NOT Always Sunny in Philadelphia

It all started in Philadelphia, a city of firsts. (If you’ve ever been to Philly, then you’ve seen Ben Franklin everywhere as a friendly reminder of this fact.)

Have you seen the crazy sitcom “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia” with Danny Devito? Well, I found myself in a situation that was not at all sunny in the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection.

One day, I was walking down the street, smelling sweet soft pretzel aroma from the food carts, singing “fly Eagles fly,” and my cell phone rings. It’s one of my favorite account managers! Yay! He is a veteran. He is successful, unflappable, and he is now my friend. So, even a hint of worry in his voice is a big deal. He says, “Listen, I’m in a bind. The trainer that was supposed to teach the PMP® Certification Bootcamp course just didn’t show up to our client…you know, the one with the skyscraper in Center City. I know you don’t do this anymore, but will you teach it for me? I need someone I can trust to knock it out of the park and save this account. Will you help me?”

Is there anyone in your life who it’s hard to say no to? I said, “Yes, of course.”

So, I show up to the skyscraper on Monday morning and get taken to the conference room. I say hello to a room full of seasoned project managers who I just learned had basically been warned, “Get your PMP or else.” I was already feeling the pressure to save the account, using materials I’d never used before, and this group of professionals are staring at me as the person who's going to help them get the certification that they're required to earn to keep their jobs.

This training bootcamp situation is a full five days where I have to firehose them with entirely too much information and hope they don’t drown. The figures in the PMBOK® Guide are black, white, and gray and essentially look liked spaghetti. On day two, they looked lost, confused, desperate, and downtrodden. Some of them were starting to freak out a little.

At the end of the day, on my way down the long elevator ride, I committed to figuring out a way to help make it easier for them to understand and remember this material so that they could pass the exam and earn their PMP®.

“If I can’t picture it,

I can’t understand it.”

~ Albert Einstein

I raced home, kicked off my heels in the foyer, and got a burst of inspiration to dig out my bag of old school index cards and a sharpie. I spent the evening on the floor of my living room working on a solution like a mad scientist.

The next day, every time I introduced a new Knowledge Area, I’d share a story I made up related to the color of the index card I chose for it. For instance, “Cost is green because at least here in the US, dollar bills are green.” And each time I introduced a new process in that Knowledge Area, I’d put it up on the wall so that the class could start to see what we’ve covered. I even added string to show where the outputs of one process became inputs of another.

Old School Index Cards on the Training Room Wall: Initiating Process Group, Develop Project Charter, Identify Stakeholders
ProjectFlo® Visual Process Map 1.0

A visual map of the processes started to form on the training room wall instead of my living room floor and the anxiety balloon that had been hanging over this class started to deflate. They started to feel more confident and settle into the material.

By the end of the five days, they told me that the Visual Process Map was like a secret weapon. I knew I had something.

And that is the story of how I accidentally started a product development journey in 2010.

Since then, I transformed the ‘old-school-hand-written-index-card-held-together-by-string’ Visual Process Map into a professional looking product with the help of some talented people. I hired a product packaging person to figure out the best materials and how to ship it. I really wanted it to be magnetic so that it could be on a wall, but that cost too much in materials and labor. She helped me figure out alternative materials and the cost to make the product so that I could figure out how much to charge a customer.

Just like children, adults learn better together and when they are having fun. We all have innate learning preferences. Over 70% of people are visual and many people also learn by hearing (auditory) and touching/doing (kinesthetic). So, I transformed the Visual Process Map into a game for individuals to learn on their own. Then, I realized how many people are also motivated by competition and focus better with a countdown timer. So, I created a gameboard large enough for groups to play. By playing the game together, everyone is covered, since the experience is highly visual, interactive, encourages discussion and feels like a timed competition.

I started incorporating the game into my courses and observing ambitious professionals around the world playing it. I’ve now spent many years improving and perfecting the experience and getting it to the point where I’ve proven that any professional can learn what is arguably the most complex project management process in the world in only one hour. Learners walk away either saying, “I get it and I’m good” or “Wow! I want to learn more!” Either response is a win! They can speak the language without having to go through five days of bootcamp. That’s the power of storytelling, gamification and design thinking. That’s right: design thinking.

I accidentally discovered that design thinking is involved too when I was encouraged to apply to speak at the annual International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) conference. ISPI is like the PMI for talent development professionals. That means they are all experts at training people, and leaders from big corporations like Boeing were going to be there. That year the upcoming conference was all about design thinking, which I didn’t know much about. I learned that one benefit of design thinking is “what takes one person five days to figure out, takes five people one day.” I just about jumped out of my chair with excitement! I thought, “That’s what happens when people play my game!”

Check out the video from the ISPI conference HERE.

So, after hiring a consultant with an Ivy League MBA to run a focus group and then battle testing it all over the world through speaking at PMI chapters, the ISPI event, inside corporations with some of the smartest people on earth, and getting better feedback than I ever thought possible, I started to connect with folks who were teaching PMP bootcamp classes to see if they would like to supplement their courses with it.

A PMI Chapter said YES. A training company in Indonesia said YES too.

Then, I spoke to a gentleman who had one of the top PMP bootcamp programs in Pennsylvania and he said he’d rather have a digital version. Since I’d also had the same thought and heard it several times before, I thought this was a sign that I better explore it. Luckily, I had run many IT projects over the years, so knew what kind of mess I was getting into. Since I happen to be a member of the New Jersey Tech Council, a few colleagues and I got a booth at one of their events and started to talk about the game. Unexpectedly, we met the future app development team there.

Friendly reminder: Networking is super important!

App Development. Since we recommend this for clients and I was paying out of my own pocket, we ran a vendor selection process the right way. I was the Project Sponsor for once instead of the Project Manager. Three wildly different bids arrived, and we selected the team. During the kickoff meeting, the App development team played the game. (Interestingly, they decided to split themselves up by gender and the females won by a landslide.) As we worked through the APP design, we referred to that exercise a lot. My guidance was “make it as much like the real-world, in-person, physical game experience as possible,” because I knew that worked. They guided me through the process of getting the APP on the Apple Store and the Google Play store. Ultimately, I am SO thrilled with the product and it was a great experience to work with such a talented team. My favorite lesson to share from this entire APP development project is that I AM SO GLAD I had observed so many people with the game in “real life” prior to attempting the digital version. So, if you are planning an APP, do create a physical way for you to observe how people use it. For the amount of money I spent on this APP, I could have a brand new car, and there were NO change orders. There were no change orders because the real-world physical experience guided the digital user experience beautifully.

Branding. Meanwhile on a business trip from New York City back to Philadelphia, somewhere along I-95 South going approximately 80 miles an hour, my branding guru friend came up with the name “ProjectFlo” to explain the whole shebang. Finding a name that is not taken is next to impossible. He encouraged me to invest in the long and expensive process to get the registered trademark. Let me tell you how exciting it is in the life of an entrepreneur when you get to add the ® to everything! Oh…and then realize that is going to require spending more money to add the tiny symbol everywhere. Ho hum.

Patent Pending. I also discovered that some people really learn better with a pen in their hand. So, I expanded the materials to include worksheets and the ProjectFlo® Process Learning System was born. It includes a 4-step learning process to help anyone master this global gold standard, no matter their learning preference. By the way, I attempted to patent this process, which meant that I was able to declare “patent pending” on all of the materials. After wasting over $5,000 and getting really, really frustrated that the patent office basically changed the rules in the middle of the game and didn’t and wouldn’t ever understand that what I was proposing was completely different than what they said already existed, I gave up.

On the road again. In February of 2020 I ran the game as part of two dinner meetings, respectively hosted by the Project Management Institute South Florida chapter and the Project Management Institute Keystone chapter in the beautiful Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. Everyone had a great time. When I returned, guess what happened?

A global lockdown with no end in sight. So, what is an international speaker and entrepreneur with a physical product who is chained to her home office supposed to do now?

Invent a virtual micro-certification course!

The next thing. Thankfully I already had the ProjectFlo® 6 App and “just” had to figure out how to get people to show up on Zoom and get through the material as quickly as possible. For people who didn’t have tablets, iPads, or who preferred the physical game, I also was lucky that I already had the shipping process in place thanks to supplying the systems for PMP courses run by organizations in and outside the US. This also was a terrific learning experience about how people learn as a group, both live and virtually. I tweaked it over time and people with a variety of experience levels around the world gave very positive feedback, shocking themselves that they were able to learn so quickly.

Another Update? Enter the threat that the PMBOK® Guide – Seventh Edition is coming and I’d need to upgrade all of the materials all over again. I’ve been at this since the Fourth Edition. Well, the angels came down from project management heaven. A quick search on “process” reveals that it appears 370 times in the Seventh Edition and the same 5 Process Groups used in the Sixth Edition are explained. Otherwise, THERE IS NO PROCESS INCLUDED in the Seventh Edition. They suggest that the Sixth Edition is still valuable.

“….there is continued value for some stakeholders in the structure and content of previous editions…” (Page viii)

YAHOO!!! No need to update the current ProjectFlo® 6 materials! They continue to be relevant and helpful. In fact, my prediction is that the exam will continue to include process questions based on the PMBOK® Guide – Sixth Edition for the foreseeable future.

What’s Next? I’ve been asked, “Are you going to be able to gamify the Seventh Edition and create ProjectFlo® 7? In looking at the Seventh Edition, I must say that I am not really sure yet how to do it. I have some ideas, so stay tuned!

What feels like a more definite next step is to create the “on demand” version of the micro-certification course where people don’t need to attend live.

And that’s the thing about entrepreneurship. We just keep thinking of the next thing we can create to help more people and hoping that the money and time we invest in the process eventually pays off. I admit and freely accept that the money I spent on ProjectFlo® could have been spent differently. (I could have bought myself a Bentley.)

If you’re thinking about starting your own business, creating a product or APP or feel the pull to become an entrepreneur, get ready for a wild ride.


About the Author: Dawn Mahan, PMP is an award-winning consultant, international speaker and coined the term “Projectland”. Her work preparing young professionals to work inside major corporations through YearUp has been featured in MarketWatch, Morningstar, Yahoo! Finance and more. To book Dawn to speak inside your organization, Contact Us

PMI® and PMBOK® are registered trademarks of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

Roller coaster cover image by Mark Asthoff via Unsplash+

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