The Business Games: Why Play is Essential for Business
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Competitive advantage fades away faster than any time in recent memory. In the 1980s, if you had a performance edge over your competitors, you could reasonably expect to continue being a leader for around 10 years, on average. But now the half-life of that advantage has shrunk to just one year. That means that short-lived success is actually still very common, but sustained success becomes very hard and very rare. That means that, actually, reimagination is the new execution. In order to stay on top, or even just to tread water and stay still, you need to constantly reimagine your business.
But reimagination is not so simple if you already have a highly successful business model. We become prisoners of the mental models that underpin our past success. In fact, Martin Reeves found in dealing with businesses that you can’t really stretch your strategy unless you stretch your mind.
Now play is of course a great way of stretching your mind. Reeves is not suggesting literally that executives huddle around a conference table with a big pile of Lego bricks, for example; instead he’s created a series of imagination games to help executives to stretch their thinking.
Let’s suppose that you’re stuck in the rut of seeing the world through the lens of your past and current success. Reeves would recommend the “Anti-Company Game,” and here’s how it works. You get a piece of paper, you create a list of everything which is essential to your strategy - everything which underpinned your past success, everything which is core and sacred - and then you flip it. You create the exact mirror-image list of assumptions, and then you make the best business case for this antiself. You’ll be surprised at the ideas that it triggers.
You’re the CEO of a hotel chain. Inconveniently, you don’t actually own any hotels or any rooms or even operate any hotels or any rooms anywhere. Ridiculous - quite possibly - but actually, how would you know the difference between ridiculous and the merely unfamiliar, untried and uncomfortable? Actually, had the executives of hotels played the “Anti-Company Game” before 2007, they might have been able to foresee the appearance of Airbnb, the hotel-less hospitality company, and they might have been able to stave off disruption by preemptively disrupting themselves.
On the edge of your industries - on the edge of every industry - are a population of maverick companies that are taking a bet against the incumbents’ business model and their view of the future. Actually, they have no choice because to be a miniature version of the incumbent would not be viable. Now, it’s easy not to notice them - many of them are small companies. It's easy to deliberately overlook them with some justification. Many startups disappear fairly quickly after being founded. And it’s very, very tempting, given all of your experience in the business, to judge them.
“Do these mavericks know what they’re doing? Does their business model make sense? Will they ever make any money?”
But instead of judging them from the comfort and the confidence of your position, try assuming that it’s they that have the right bet on the future. Think about the consequences of that for your business model. Try making the best case for their idea.
You are the CEO of a company that makes equipment that makes semiconductors. Naturally, you’d probably spend most of your time and attention on your main customer industry, the electronics industry. And if it so happened, that a couple of maverick bioscience companies were tinkering with your patents and your technologies, you might overlook that as a distraction, an irrelevance.
But actually, Brooks Automation, a leader in the field, decided to take a close-up look at such a group of mavericks to see whether it could learn anything. And it realized that, actually, the same techniques and technologies which can be used to handle delicate semiconductors can also be applied to other fragile and easily contaminated materials, like biological samples. And puzzling on the significance of this, they reimagined how to handle and store and transport and label and identify biological samples. In fact, they became a successful pioneer in the new industry of automated biobanking.
Now, not everything in business goes according to plan. In fact, sometimes the plans go horribly awry. But you know what? That can be a source of inspiration, too. Enter the “Pre-Mortem Game”: your role in this game is to write the obituary for your company, which is going to fail with 100% certainty in 5 years’ time. What is the cause of death? What will have been the point of failure? Why will it have failed? How will it have failed?
The challenge in the “Pre-Mortem Game” is that it’s easy to be seduced into the baseline fallacy. The baseline fallacy is the idea that it’s the current business model which is the low-risk bet. And of course that tends to be true until it isn’t true, at which point it’s probably too late to do anything about it.
Your employees are an early-warning indicator. They will have intuitions if the model begins to slip, but it’s very hard for them to speak up. And it’s even taboo for them to speak up when the business model is under pressure. But when executives create playgrounds - spaces for the safe exploration of alternatives and alternative scenarios - then you get to tap into your employees’ considerable experience about the vulnerabilities and the weak spots and the blind spots of your company.
It’s probably been quite a while since we last visited the local banking branch, right? Had bricks-and-mortar banks played the “Pre-Mortem Game,” perhaps they would have heard their employees expressing some concerns about the gradually dwindling flow of customers to local branches. And perhaps they would have been slightly less taken by surprise when companies like NewBank, a digital native, seized, very rapidly indeed, on that opportunity to convince, to date, more than 40 million Latin Americans that in-person transactions in real buildings were a quaint but obsolete relic of the past.
It’s only when you bring your vulnerabilities into full view in this way that you may be motivated to reimagine your business and to do so in a robust manner. It’s why the Roman Catholic Church invented the role, the position of the Devil’s advocate in the 16th century to test the future consequences of its decisions to appoint new saints. They did that by imagining what would Satan say or propose or counterpropose, in addition to the normal procedure of thinking about the big man upstairs.
Any human being, any employee, any team and therefore any company can harness human imagination. It’s a defining trait of our species. Failures to imagine in business are really failures of leadership. Business is a serious matter, but it should not exclude play. When leaders embrace play and imagination games, they can unlock the imagination of their employees, uncover disruptive new strategies and renew their lease on the future.
Successful business strategy is about actively shaping the game you play, not just playing the game you find.
The essence of strategy lies in creating tomorrow’s competitive advantages faster than competitors mimic the ones you possess today.
Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.
Strategies for taking the hill won’t necessarily hold it.
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“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
Play is spontaneous and pleasurable but, more importantly, it accelerates and derisks learning. When we’re kids, it helps us to try out new behaviors, to refine those behaviors and to imagine what is not but what could be or what will be. Martin Reeves, a business strategist dealing with adults, argues that, in fact, play in business is not just possible: it’s essential and even urgent. Here’s why.
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