Playing the game

Feb 19, 2001

I have never been big on “business is a game” analogies. The people I have met over the years who’ve used this analogy never seemed to exemplify the kind of values that I think you need to be successful for the long haul. They often forget that they are dealing with people and families, and tend to be a tad selfish. But that said, there are some parallels between a good game— whether it’s chess, checkers, poker, or something else— and business, particularly when it comes to strategy. Here’s some of my thinking on the subject: In business, as in a good game, you need to have a strategy. There should be a certain “way” you work, a philosophy about how to do things that you apply and modify slightly over time. It becomes a way of life. Things that don’t fit into that way of life are not given a lot of thought. This can make you really efficient and help speed up decision-making on a wide range of matters. No strategy works in every situation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a set of strategies that work in most situations. Some people in the A/E/C business seem to think you can’t have a particular management ideology. It’s seen as somehow too rigid or too narrow, or it shows that you are naive about “how things really work.” I totally disagree. You must have this ideology. It doesn’t mean that you are inflexible, can’t ever consider new ideas, or that the same response is appropriate for every situation. There may be a set of responses that you consider using, but they aren’t unlimited in number. The player who has the conviction to stick to his or her strategy tends to be the long-term winner. You see this time and time again in the A/E/C industry. Firms that are schizophrenic in their approach tend to suffer huge ups and downs, and big swings in size, workload, and prosperity. Those that are consistent tend to have a steady upward movement in their revenue line. Firms with strong strategies that are applied over time end up with true competitive advantages over everyone else. Detachment from the ultimate outcome is critical to success. Detachment doesn’t mean you don’t care about the results. It’s the opposite. You have confidence that you will get the results you seek if you keep doing the right things. It’s just a matter of time, not a matter of luck. When you get too wrapped up in the outcome, and it doesn’t happen on your time schedule, you get frustrated. The next thing that happens in the strategy is thrown out. Then a lot of the work you’ve already done will undoubtedly go to waste. That’s inefficient. You can learn a lot from studying your opponent. Study the good things and the bad things they do. Observing how they sell work, how they service clients, how they deal with their people, and how they handle problems can help you make improvements in those areas in your firm. Cheaters get thrown out of the game. Stack the deck and get caught, and you’re out of the game. Ditto for this business. Pay off public officials, cheat on your taxes, rip off a subcontractor, and you can get put out of business. That’s why employees who show they don’t understand how serious these kinds of infractions are must be dealt with mercilessly. You can’t win, have fun, or learn if you don’t play. You have to be in the game. That means that you have to want to be involved as a player in your field, not just an observer who drifts along. “Drifters” become victims— victims of a bad economy, victims of “unethical” competitors, victims of many things they cannot control. Originally published 2/19/2001.

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