The Best Game Ever Invented: Business

Throughout my life, I’ve always enjoyed playing games, particularly strategic ones.

In high school, I was one of the main nerds who played chess in the library at lunch.

And I blame video games for helping me lose my scholarship in college. (Yeah, I know, I can’t blame anyone but myself.) But on Monday nights it was also Risk night at one of my friend’s houses (yes, you’re seeing a trend of nerdness here).

Now, the office team at iThemes has several video gaming consoles in our breakroom and is always playing some cool new game and asking me to join in the fun. (Although I still insist on only playing Mario Kart on the Wii because I have an addictive personality when it comes to games like that.)

I love these types of games, mainly because it’s easy to measure the results of your effort, and see where you stack up against others.

But in 2008, I found the greatest game ever invented: Business. 

For the same reasons that I’ve loved playing these and other games, I’ve become infatuated with the game of business. I love business though even more because playing it means I get to do work I love while earning a living.

Just like in a video game, I believe there are rules for doing business. But similar to board or video games, scoring is simple and typically kept by revenues and profits (but more so the difference you make in your customers and team’s lives although that’s sometimes harder to measure).

Your competition and opponents are almost always identifiable.

And in the great game of business, there are games within the game. For instance, each new product we launch is a new game, with (mostly) new rules and new competition.

Each time I’ve reviewed and contemplated a new product idea, I always go back to how I approach a new game.

So I wanted to share some thoughts on how I approach business and products like a game (and by the way, I apply this also to new industries or fields in my career) …

First, a new game opportunity will blip on my radar and become apparent to me. I try to stay current on my industry, with eyes always open to new opportunities (what I think of as diversity and planning for the future).

When a new game opens up, I’ll almost immediately express an interest, or not, in it. Some games are big opportunities but I have no desire to play them, or I simply know I cannot be competitive and win.

But if something catches my interest (like a product area I’ve longed to wade into, or a completely new business area), then I start watching and learning.

And as I’ve started to be more conscious of how I approach new opportunities, I’ve started to note the things I ask and look for.

The key questions I’m always interested in at first are:

  • What is the game? What is it all about? With our business, it’s fairly straight forward. It’s mostly applying the same approaches to new product areas. But this is a bigger view about what you’re doing that can win.
  • How do you win it? What are the keys to winning? In a whole new field or industry, I ask: What are the rules?, and How do they keep score? I usually study the existing players and competition, and how people have historically and consistently won the game. All the while I make make notes which usually spark ideas for potential innovation or an edge.
  • Who’s playing it already? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Sometimes the game is way too crowded or I’m too far behind to learn and compete for my tastes. On deeper reflection, sometimes all the angles and moves have already been taken. And then, the game isn’t fun to me. The cost to entry just to compete is just too much to be any fun (or profitable).
  • And, finally, can I be any good at it? What are my/our strengths and weaknesses? Do I/we have the necessary finances, people, audience, skills, tools, experience, expertise and approach to win consistently enough to make it worth my while?

The last one is a big one … after all, why play a game if you can’t be competitive and win a reasonable amount of time.

We all have a finite amount of time, treasure and talent. And I want to use ours wisely. Spending those resources on a game I will not ever win (think: Call of Duty which I sucked at), or win consistently enough to make it worth my while is absolutely fundamental. And naturally, when more is at risk, I tend to be more conservative in the games I play and yes, even how I play them.

One final note is that along the way, as we dig into our new games, I’ve learned it’s also important to assess how you’re doing IN the game.

For that in-game review, I ask these types of questions fairly regularly:

  • Are we having fun? Or are we bored, or loathing it?
  • What is winning?
  • Are we winning?
  • How can we keep winning?
  • What are we learning and how are we improving?
  • What’s next?

So those are some thoughts about how I approach and play the great game of business, and why I love it so much.

What about you? What insights do you have about approaching the game of business?


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