What the United States Census Taught Me About Clear and Defined Goals

Census listers. My game group. I found myself comparing them a lot, particularly on days when I was looking forward to session at the end of the day. It was partly a fact about cohesion, and partly a fact about proactivity; my listing crew beats my game group hands down in that regard.

As with all of my other attempts to learn from the United States Census, I find myself asking why. And the answer, it seems, comes back to the clear instructions.

With the Census, you know what you’re doing. It’s been ground into your head over a week with a manual that could stop a bullet and still have enough structural integrity to serve as a club, and even after that the Powers That Be will cheerfully inform you what your expectations are. At least 25 hours a week. At least 20 addresses per hour. (It’s actually a pretty decent average, assuming a brisk walk and nothing but uncomplicated single family structures, but I digress.) The important part is that the goals are clear, and it’s not too hard to figure out how to meet them—you move your potential scheduling conflicts, make sure your crew leader knows when you’ve finished an assignment area so you can get your next one ASAP, cultivate the ability to end a conversation cleanly and don’t let yourself get distracted on the road. It’s pretty straightforward.

What happens if there aren’t clear and defined goals? Suddenly the group has as many objectives as it does players. Or everyone can agree on an objective, but no two of them can agree on methods. Alternately, some of them might be able to agree with each other, and you get a smaller number of groups practically at war over the direction of the party. I can think of games in which this wouldn’t be a problem, but I haven’t been involved in any of them.

So what do we do? We make sure we know the processes behind the objectives we have planned for the group. Consider the Census objective: Count everyone in the country. The two major steps for this are “locate everyone” and “send out forms by which everyone can be counted. Now, let’s look at “locate everyone in the country”. The easiest way to do this is to have people run out and find where people are living—that would be census listers like me. But a country’s an awfully big place to cover, so they divide it down from there; they divide the country into regions, and the regions into local offices, and the local offices into crew leader districts, and stick someone in charge for each division. Then the crew leader districts get divided into assignment areas, and from there into blocks. This turns the task into something quantifiable and manageable. Each lister has to list every living area in her assigned assignment areas—and to make sure they do it fast enough that their answers can be checked, they’re given a target rate to match and an hours worked goal to work toward. The crew leader has to make sure that all of the assignment areas in her district are given listers. And up above us, they’ve already filled in the people responsible for those below them.

Ensuring a player group has a process is similar to that. If they don’t seem to understand how to accomplish the goal they’ve been given—or even the one they’ve chosen themselves—it becomes your job to figure out how you’d do it. Break each requirement into a few steps, then offer options for how to do these steps. For instance, if one of the things you’ve puzzled out is that they need ways of giving themselves energy in the otherworld to which they’ll have to go to defeat the vengeful ghost at the bottom of the ocean, you’ll want to figure out what would constitute an energy source, a couple of ways they might get one, and what that would entail, then find a way to sneak the information in front of them. They might still debate over which one to take, but at least they’re not completely lost, right?

Doing this can give an otherwise directionless-seeming group a stronger sense of purpose, allowing them to actually get things done rather than dithering about arguing over how. It might also get rid of the lack of direction—sometimes people just don’t know where to start, and a little push is what they need.

So if you’ve got a group that doesn’t know what to do, drop them a few possible goals and see what happens.

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