Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What’s True in Games is True in Life: Quick Decisions

Executive Summary:
A common and abhorrent cause of waste in many organizations is indecision.  If your organization suffers from slow decision-making or “analysis paralysis,” take a lesson from your favorite game and see how preparation and “calling the ball” can lead to quicker, better decisions.

The Rest of the Story:
Have you ever examined what it is about our favorite games that makes them so engaging?  After all, sometimes we find ourselves jumping up and down, our heart rates accelerate, or we just find ourselves up late at night playing when we should be sleeping.  I believe that the combination of fantasy and real-life challenge is what does it for us.

I believe that games that somehow represent real mental challenges are the ones that endure and prove the most engaging.  Therefore, what is true in games is true in life.  If you can win a game through better strategy and decision-making, then you should be able to succeed in life, and business, through better strategy and decision-making.

Bear with me while I provide an example to explain.  Recently, my family and I attended a local baseball game.  While I watched the game, I reflected on how, in my youthful attempts to master the game I found it most challenging to know or decide where to throw the ball when the batter sent it to me. 

I was astounded, again, at how the professionals always seem to know exactly where they are going to throw the ball, even before it is in their hands.  I’m always impressed when the outfield team manages a double or triple play by moving the ball from player to player, base to base, with automated rapidity.  It’s marvelous fun to watch.

So, because I marvel at it, I can’t help but try to understand it.  Obviously, the players do know exactly where to throw the ball before it is in their hands.  They have already made the decision, before they have the ball.  Yet, the game is very dynamic and the right thing to do can change with every change of the batter.  How do they know what to do?

The beauty of a game is that many of the aspects that create the challenge are obvious to everyone, players and spectators alike, so everyone can engage on more-or-less equal terms.  So, the key elements that drive in-game decisions are also easy to identify.

The victory criteria are plain to everyone.  The team or player with the most (or least) points wins.  Because the win/lose requirement is clear, the basic strategy is also easy to decipher, though individual tactics may be very diverse.  One way or another, your team wants to score best, while preventing the opponent from doing so.

Finally, the rules of the game are also clear and everyone playing knows them well.  When you think about it, when so much is obvious, the decisions become much easier to make.  Even so, the victory, the strategy, the tactics, and the rules can be a-lot to consider all at once when a ball suddenly rockets into your glove and it’s time to act.

The baseball double play or triple play is only achieved when each player already knows what to do.  There is no time to think about it while the ball is moving.  The thought process is already complete and all that takes place is action.

Now, don’t you wish that your own business actions could be so quick and decisive? Things in business may not be so obvious as they are in baseball, but that doesn’t mean that what works in baseball won’t also work to improve your business decisions.

Obviously, the key to quick and correct action is to know what to do before you have the ball in hand.  This comes from preparation, and of course practice helps.  We can act decisively when we can always be thinking, “If A happens then B is what I’m going to do.”

So let’s examine what we need in order to always be ready.  We’ve already laid most of it out just by looking at the baseball example.

First, we need to know what success looks like.  We need to understand what makes our immediate team successful, what makes our larger organization successful, and what success is for the whole business.  We need this information to determine what is the right thing to do.

Second, we need to understand our strategy.  What is our intended method for achieving success?  Is the business strategy focused on growth, or reducing operating costs, or innovation?  What is the strategy of your specific team within the business?  Is it flawless execution, or faster execution, or reduction in overhead?

Third, we need to understand the rules of the game.  Naturally there are rules that dictate what is legal and ethical.  But the rules that tend to muddy waters the most are business policies.  We have these policies to help guide decisions.  If we don’t know them, or understand them, or if they are obsolete, then we have a decision-making problem.

Last, we need to know who has the ball.  I know this sounds ridiculous, but really, in my own experience, it’s the piece that’s missing the most.

In smaller organizations the ball handlers are few and either clear authority or precedence makes it plain to everyone who is expected to make the decision.  In larger organizations, particularly in matrix organizations, it isn’t always so clear.

If you can’t establish clarity of authority for a decision, then start driving the habit of calling the ball.  Why not?  Baseball outfielders do it.  Volleyball players do it.  Business people do it too; we just don’t use the word “ball” all the time. 

Don’t be shy.  When you are in the meeting and the problem comes up, just ask, “Who is going to make the call on this one?”  If no one is identified, then call the ball yourself if it’s within your purview, or challenge someone else to call it.  It’s an easy habit to start and you don’t need to be the guy in charge to set it in motion.

If you don’t know the success or victory criteria for your organization, or if you don’t know the strategy or policies, start asking questions.  The right time to ask questions is before you need to act, not when you need to act.  If you are a leader of others, does the rest of your team know what they need to know to decide and to act appropriately?  Test them, and fill in the gaps.

Now for the hard part; we must begin making decisions before the ball is in our hands.  This takes practice.  The good news is we don’t need the ball to get started.

If you know that your own leader is working on a plan or will need to make a decision, ask about it.  Ask, “What are you thinking?  What are the options?”  If you know what the likely possible outcomes might be, then you can think ahead to what that will mean to you when you are called upon to support the decision or plan.

It’s like the second baseman thinking to himself, “If the outfielder gets the ball, he’ll throw it to me, and I’ll need to touch second base and spin and throw it to first base for the double play.”  Chances are you do this to some extent intuitively.  The challenge is to become more aware and deliberate.  Don’t rely on luck; rely on preparation.

Decision-making is a critical element to the success of every business, organization, or sport team.  Game and business victories depend upon decisions that support or fulfill a winning strategy.  Look to your favorite sport, board game, on-line game, or competitive event for inspiration.  Look for how successful decisions are made in the game, and re-create that phenomenon for your business organization.

Take some time this week and examine how well you and others in your organization understand the victory goals, the strategy, the policies, and who gets to run with the ball.  If you find something is lacking, fill in the gap and then begin preparing for the plays that might come your way.  You just might find yourself prepared for that double play that will bring victory.

Stay wise, friends.

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