(2023-06-26) Cutler Tbm229 Winnable And Unwinnable Gamespart

John Cutler TBM 229: Winnable and Unwinnable Games (Part 1). Imagine a framework or a way of working as a game

One of my key motivations for doing so many North Star Framework (North-Star Metric) workshops is that the framework, with some effort, created a positive game. Teams enjoy autonomy and can link their work to sustainable business outcomes. (cooperative game)

Unfortunately, many people devise games for their teams and companies that are inherently unwinnable, or winnable but not helpful or valuable to customers, employees, and "the business".

Experienced product developers develop a reasonably honed skill (some call it a spidey sense) about situations that are doomed to failure.

They sense that point where too many limiting constraints, too many drivers, and not enough floats almost guarantee failure.

Here's a webinar I did on drivers, limiting constraints, floats, and enabling constraints:

However, even experienced product developers frequently agree to play unwinnable games

Why? Some reasons include:

They are new to this particular game.

They don't understand this particular game.

They play the game in a low-trust / low-confidence environment

Imagine if Nadella were to walk into a company with no development, product, or operational chops. Would he succeed? I'm not sure—a skilled PE firm might do a better job of achieving a successful—but uninspiring—outcome.

Game Clashes

at any given company, at any given moment, many games are being played. Games Theory

This leaves us with a couple of puzzles (meta-games even?)

TBM 229: Winnable and Unwinnable Games (Part 2)

This week I will explore how different games can be "good" but very different, the role of mechanics and balancing forces, game transitions, and the "spirit" of the game.

Warning! I am thinking "out loud" here.

Compare two companies:

Company 1:

Focus on competing with other companies

Example: Southwest ("we're all in this together"), Spotify (still?)

Company 2:

Competition between departments for budget and control of narratives

Example: Microsoft (before 2014). Amazon?

Let's compare them to board games:

Company 1 is like Forbidden Island.

Company 2 is more like Dead of Winter, a cooperative (is meta-cooperative a thing?) survival game.

Central Twists (Balancing Forces)

Each game has unique devices and mechanics that create dissonance and balancing forces.

Spirit of the Game

In each game, some moves would technically fall within the game rules but are not in the spirit of the game.

Forbidden Island: Consistently acting unilaterally without consulting with the team.

Dead of Winter: Refusing to contribute to the crisis contribution

In any organizational culture, the spirit of the game goes beyond the "rules." This spirit of the game encompasses the shared understanding and meaning, values, and attitudes that players bring to the game

Consistently twisting the rules creates a new game. Death of Winter can easily become Survivor. (game playing)

The spirit of the game (culture) is what ultimately makes the game more than just a set of rules. The same applies to a company: its culture goes beyond its formal rules and processes. This is why attempts to "just" figure out incentives and brute-force a company culture tend to fail (or leave you with a different game). You can't shake the core beliefs of the founders, even when they pretend to play another game.

Companies are constantly transitioning between different games—new players join, new rules emerge, the spirit of the game changes, and efforts to circumvent rules become new games.

TBM 229: Winnable and Unwinnable Games (Part 3)

A Turn…

CEO: I don't care what you do...just fix it! What support do you need?

CTO (thinking): I'm not exactly sure what we need, let me ask the VP.

Each person in the hierarchy (CEO, CTO, VP, Director, and Manager) acts as both an agent (when fielding requests from above) and a principal (when delegating tasks to those below)

See the principle-agent problem.

Individuals base their decisions on their predecessors' actions, with the probability of the wrong initial decision amplified through the hierarchy. It's a classic telephone game (with power and motives mixed in).

By the time the turn is over, the complex issue is oversimplified, and you have an unwinnable game—at least from a global perspective.

Let’s challenge the idea of an unwinnable game for a moment. As noted above, maybe that is just at the global level.

Good Game Criteria Review

❗Clear, attainable goals that players understand. This Game: The goals become watered down very quickly.

❗Maintain a balance of difficulty, ensuring challenges aren't overly easy or excessively hard. This Game: Ripe for teams overcommitting or commitments getting distorted

❗Timely feedback and rewards boosting player motivation. This Game: Feedback loop is very, very long

❗Engaging gameplay mechanics captivate players and sustain their interest. This Game: Kind of soul-sucking. Everyone is passing along information with low confidence it will make a difference.

Your Turn: How might we improve the game?

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