Assembled Chaos

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What Atari games can teach us about consortium project design

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Many of us who were old enough to play video games in the '80s spent lots of time the Atari game console. What is remarkable about those games is that compared to even today's smartphones, the computing power in those machines was minuscule.

Yet there were several sophisticated games.

It is all about iteration

Recently digital archaeologists found one of those advanced games with a bit of seemingly 'magical' computer code. The game was called Entombed.

The basic premise was finding your way through a maze. Developers faced a challenge in that there was not enough computing power to store the mazes on the game cartridge. This meant that they had found a way to generate solvable maze patterns using an algorithm.

When the code for the game was examined, the digital archaeologists found a table of values in that code which was puzzling.

It was puzzling in that they could not decipher how the table was generated. There was no clear formula anyone could uncover that would give the same set of values.

Yet, the game worked flawlessly to create solvable mazes.

They concluded that the developer must of simply generated the table through multiple iterations of trial and error.

This is an illustration of the power of working in iterative cycles.

Creating something, evaluating, and then adapting is a strategy that enables school children to outperform individuals with an MBA.

Working in iterative cycles is particularly useful when you have a complex problem that you do not know how to solve at the outset.

Iteration in consortium projects

This is often the case for medical research consortium projects. They are about solving complex problems that require the engagement of multiple disciplines and stakeholders.

It is easy to be discouraged by the complexity of what you are trying to achieve in these projects.

Like the developer of that Atari game, working iterative manner is a powerful way to accomplish complex ambitions.  By focusing on the process in this way, you can readily build up the courage to take on even the most ambitious projects. 

The key is to define a first piece of work that contributes to the overall goal and is highly achievable. The result of that first effort should be mundane and almost boring. It should also be achievable in the short term. 

When we have added this element to the design of complex and ambitious consortium projects the results have always been surprising. 

More importantly, a quick success, no matter how mundane it is, has the effect of increasing the enthusiasm and engagement of everyone in the project.

Beyond that first piece of work, iterative cycles should permeate your project plan. Each iterative cycle provides the opportunity for learning adaptation.

Science after all progresses most rapidly when researchers respond to unexpected findings.