The Object of the Game

Some time back, I talked about some lessons I’d learned from a couple different (fairly geeky) games.  There’s a valuable lesson I didn’t include there, and I think it deserves its own post.  In honor of the start of the American Football season, I’ll even add some sports analogies.

The lesson is simple: don’t ever forget the object of the game.  But there are a couple side lessons which follow from it.

I know I promised football, but bear with me a moment.  As a child learning Chess, I remember being fascinated by the idea that a pawn could change to any other piece once it reached the opposite side.  It became an objective for me in playing the game, to try and get some of my pawns “upgraded.”  But the point of Chess is not to upgrade your pawns, and playing as if it was put me at a serious disadvantage.  Not only that, but once my opponent realized this was what I was trying to do, my weakness was doubled.

Creative Commons License photo credit: cadmanof50s

Now, if you are an American Football coach and you really like watching your star quarterback throw long passes, you may not be playing to win the game but rather to have as many long passes as possible.  Not only are you playing the wrong game, but once the opposing coach figures out what game you’re playing, he will optimize his game plan to take advantage of this, since he knows he doesn’t have to defend against the run as heavily.

American Football
Creative Commons License photo credit: Anderson Mancini

If you’ve played a lot of competitive games or sports, you’ve probably seen this all your life.  Either you or your opponent has lost sight of the game’s objective and lost the game.

The business lesson is obvious.  If your organization doesn’t know what game it’s supposed to be playing, and your competitors do, you are likely to lose.  If your competitor figures out what game you are playing, you are even more likely to lose.  But there are some side lessons.

Defining how to win

If you as an organization know the rules of the game aren’t well-understood, you are in excellent shape to change those rules.  You’ll see this all the time as companies battle over how to define success in their industry.  How often do you see multiple competitors claiming they are the market leader in the same market?  They are trying to convince you that their strategy is in alignment with the game’s objectives and their opponents’ aren’t, by redefining the objectives.

Does your team all agree?

Your whole team has to understand the object of the game.  In a team sport, a player whose objectives are out of line can sabotage the team’s performance.  Sports fans have heard about the batter who always wants to hit a home run, or the defensive back who is always going for the interception.  Maybe you have a star developer on your team who takes great pride in writing bug-free, extensible code (don’t we all?).  Your business objective, though, might be to create a prototype version which can be evaluated by partners to determine viability of a new approach.  If your developer doesn’t understand that objective, you are competing at a disadvantage (and they are likely to get a lousy performance review even though thought they did excellent work).

Leadership implications

Finally, as a leader you can hopefully mold the game your team is playing to maximize their ability to contribute.  Not everybody on your team will be motivated by winning the same game that your business will reward you for winning.  The real trick is finding ways to find the game your team members want to play and morph this somehow into the real game.  This puts a lot of weight on your shoulders.  You have to understand the rules of the game, understand the game all your team members wish they were playing, be creative about how to manage that situation.  This can be hard — maybe someone on your team is better off elsewhere in the company, where their passion for a particular type of game can be better utilized.

It’s easy to get lost in the trenches, worrying about achieving short-term goals defined on the spur of the moment.  But by always keeping the game’s objective in mind, you can be sure you’re positioned to succeed and aligned with everyone around you.