It’s All In the Game

I’ve just returned from a particularly interesting business conference, “The Gathering of Games,” with a colleague of mine from Nicaragua.  Rene Mendoza is the Interim Director of NITLAPAN, an institute specializing in research on and the creation and publicizing of new, local, rural and urban development models and methodologies.  We thought that the themes from the Gathering- teaching financial transparency, broad participation, engagement of an organization’s people- fit closely with the development workshops that Rene and his colleagues have undertaken recently with rural coffee cooperatives supported by Winds of Peace.  We were not disappointed: the wide range of organizations and speakers represented at the conference of over 400 participants provided story after story of transformational success, with results to make even the skeptics say “wow.”

The Great Game of Business is the title of both a book and a movement.  (If you haven’t acquainted yourself with the concept and the company, I urge you to do so.)  But it also stands for some of the most basic needs of organizational life and development, whether in a business, a government agency, a non-profit or other organizational model.  Come to think of it, they’re pretty good guides for personal life, as well.  And within the simplicity of these basic ideas lies the unqualified success of the concept.  In short, they change not only the organizations that people inhabit, but the lives of the people themselves.

Rule Number 1: Know and Teach the Rules.

Every organization- every organism, in fact- has a formula for success.  There are certain things that have to happen in order to experience surviving and thriving into the future.  For all too many organizations, those rules, those keys for success, are known to only a few.  Maybe it’s because it’s because things have always been done that way.  Perhaps access to such knowledge is regarded as a “perk” to a select few in the organization, a sort of “special secret” made available as a badge of honor to high-ranking members.  Or just possibly, these essentials are simply unknown to the majority of people in an organization and there has been no perceived need to know them, that they are, in fact, the province and concern of others.

Whatever the reason, when organizations reserve the understanding of the success equation to only a few, the organization has limited itself, and sometimes fatally so.  To play any game, the entire team has to know the rules, what strategy is being followed and how to score.  It’s not enough for only some players to know, because they’re not always the ones who are capable of scoring.

If I don’t know the rules, it’s essential for me to learn them.  If my colleague doesn’t know the rules, it’s essential for me to teach him/her.  We only win together.

Rule Number 2: Follow the Action and Keep Score.

The only way to know whether we’re winning is by keeping score.  In a cooperative, it might be measured by how much harvest is produced, or how much is paid for it.  In a business, it could be the total sales made, or what kind of profit was generated.  For a non-profit, it ought to be a measure of the impact made in the lives of its clients, however measured.  Whatever the enterprise, it’s not really worth undertaking unless there’s a means to measure the outcomes.

But it turns out that those final outcomes are also made up of many smaller actions, activities contributed by every member of the organization, in some way, big or small. And before we can expect to measure positive outcomes on that final scoreboard, we need to be tracking those smaller, individual contributions that make up the final score.  That’s the responsibility, the duty, of every organizational member to every other member.  It’s the fabric that holds the organization together, that makes it strong or weak, that allows it to grow into the future.

Sometimes it’s hard for individuals to feel personal responsibility for an organization populated by many others; it’s easier to let others take on the obligations.  But that’s like asking a teammate to do all of his work as well as yours, while expecting the same rewards in the end.  It’s not fair, and it doesn’t work.  Being engaged- following every bit of action- is the price that each of us must pay in order to win.  It’s what feeds the scoreboard.

Rule Number 3: Everyone Needs A Stake in the Outcome.

There are no hangers-on in successful organizations (or at least, not many or for long).  That’s why a stake in the outcome is critical to organization strength.  And that stake in the final score comes about in at least two ways.

First, a stake comes about by an individual and all members investing themselves in the organizational group.  It requires a commitment, a pledge, a willingness to do the things that must be done in order to succeed.  If all the planning, or all the financial support, or all of the field work is done by someone else, it’s hard to feel any sense of ownership of an enterprise.  But it’s that sense of ownership, the pride in having something that belongs to you, which drives people through the difficult times and allows for no quit.  Care for an organization only happens when its members have invested a piece of themselves in it.

Second, a stake comes about in the form of rewards, the reason that people invest in the first place.  And on any team, if anyone wins, everyone must win.  If a World Cup soccer or World Series baseball team paid only a few of its members after victory, that team would dissolve in chaos and anger.  Other organizations are no different. It’s neither just nor sustainable to allow only a few to reap the benefits that have been created by the many.  And there is no more certain way for a team, a coop, a business or any organization to fall apart than to allow an individual or group of leaders or a family to be rewarded with benefits that belong to the entire group.

It turns out that organizational development is the great game.  Behind the three basic rules above, there are a myriad of techniques and methodologies designed to build trust and values and genuine caring for one another, and I’ll address some of those in the days to come.  But for starters, the week just ended has affirmed for us that it all begins with the three very simple and wrenchingly-difficult tenets above.

As is true for many games, sometimes it comes down to how badly one team wants to win….



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