How do we increase the odds of “winning” with the team we have?
At the beginning of any game, everyone starts with the same number of players on the board. And in the rush to get things done, we focus on moving those players around the best we can. If we’re good, we might win.
But if we’re smart, as leaders we can change the game in a way that makes our side more capable, more powerful, and ultimately more successful. It all boils down to this essential question: What game is it that we are playing?
Not Your Father’s Monopoly
It’s axiomatic in our family: Any game presented to our kids will not last long in its original state. They are masters at modifying the rules, adding pieces, changing processes, and adjusting it relentlessly.
For example, I’m not sure we’ve ever played the same game of Monopoly twice. In one of its later incarnations:
- The railroads became subways allowing shortcuts between stations owned.
- An “inflation” spinner told a player how much of his $200 “Go” money he actually got to keep.
- For every successful trip around the board, a player got a 10% “experience” bump to his salary.
- Political parties moved in and out of office every 10 minutes, affecting tax rates, housing costs, and building permits.
- Players could invest money in a “stock market” controlled by another spinner that may (or may not) pay off after a certain number of turns.
Our kid’s willingness re-imagine the rules and build new capabilities into the standard game made it fun, opened up playing options, and forced us to think strategically.
What does this have to do with leadership?
Out of the Box
Like opening the game box and setting up the pieces, as leaders we are tempted to take what we have in the real world at face value. Instead of a board, a couple of dice, and some markers, it’s an organization, a mission, and some teammates.
That’s all we think we have. Winning simply means being the best at manipulating those things within the rules.
But is that really the game we are playing?
If we are truly trying to lead, I don’t think it is.
Consider the Pawn
How about another game: Chess.
Open the box, line up all the pieces and you end up with a long phalanx of pawns across the front. I’m no chess master, but those pawns seem awfully limited in what they can do. It mostly boils down to moving one square at a time, straight ahead.
If we accept the game as is, there’s nothing we can do about these eight well-meaning but slow-moving pieces. A good manager might move them skillfully, and sometimes he may win.
But a leader sees the board differently. The pieces aren’t static, forever doomed to plod across the board one square at a time. She knows that with opportunity and attention the pawn is capable of doing more.
When she invests in making that happen, the pieces gradually begin to change. They grow taller, move farther and in new directions. They can have a greater impact on the game.
Soon she finds she has a few extra castles she didn’t have before, possibly an additional knight, and she may even have her opponent outnumbered in bishops three to one.
Is that playing fair? I’d say yes. In fact, maybe what’s not fair is if we don’t give the pawns a chance to move up in the ranks.
Forever-Pawns are more likely to become disengaged or uncooperative. They may even look for a different game to join.
How do we go about making our players more capable? We change the game in small ways every day:
- Teach them new skills yourself; the EDGE method is one simple way.
- Have others on your team teach what they know to teammates.
- Delegate purposefully. Not the menial stuff, but a task that will challenge them to learn, grow, and become more.
- Get down in the trenches and work side-by-side with them to set the example. What better way to demonstrate what you are looking for and what “right” looks like?
- Encourage with positive feedback, focusing on the things that will help them become more capable.
- Pause to reflect with them; make it a routine they grow to expect and anticipate as an opportunity to improve. Don’t wait for the annual review; speak with them daily and weekly.
- Make After Action Reviews a regular practice so that everyone adopts a learning mindset.
Building individual capacity in this way improves the odds that you’ll win whatever game you happen to be playing.
Change the Game – The Takeaway
If we sat down to a game of chess and found that our opponent’s front row consisted not of pawns but many more powerful pieces, how long do we think we’d last?
Yet everyone started with the same pieces when the box was opened. The difference is the leader who helped make them more than they were. And through them he stands a far greater chance of winning.
Because in the end, success in this game isn’t about how much we can do personally. It’s about how capable we can help our people become.
When most people sit down to play chess, they see a line of eight pawns.
What does the leader see?
Leaders change the game.