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Unwinnable Corporate Games

By: Maret Maxwell

Management Winning the games they are playing is of vital importance to corporations. Creating and sustaining a vibrant and growing business has always been a challenge and as the pace quickens in an increasingly global marketplace wining margins become thinner and thinner. Unfortunately with the increased pace and pressure corporate leaders often fall into the trap of creating unwinnable games. As described in this chapter there are three particular conditions that are created; 1) unclear rules, 2) unrealistic timeframes, and 3) unsupportive environments.

Work groups and teams find themselves confused and frustrated by unclear rules that result from not aligning goals and performance measurements within an organization. As a simple example, when the operations group's goal is to meet a production schedule in support of market demand and the quality department's goal is reduce defects in incoming material, a situation is created where the inevitable rejection of incoming material that does not meet the elevated standards results in starvation for the production line. The problem is not that meeting market demand is a bad thing. It's not and in fact it is essential to the business. It's not that improving the quality of incoming material is a bad idea. It's not and in fact it is a necessary condition to meeting the increasing challenges of a global market. The problem is that the unaligned goals have created a situation where the players in the game are trying playing with different rules and for those players the game is now unwinnable. The solution to this particular example is to eliminate the implicit unnecessary either or in the scenario. Instead of 'we can improve the quality of incoming material or we can meet market demand' simply moving to 'we have to both improve the quality of incoming material and meet market demand' creates a set of clear rules that moves the players to a winnable game.

The greatest frustration for any project team is finding themselves working to deliver a project in an unrealistic timeframe. This often occurs when management responding to the intense competition sets a due date before the project team has created a schedule. Wanting the best for the business and unable to negotiate a realistic timeframe, the team then creates a project schedule that requires a couple of miracles to deliver. The situation goes unacknowledged and the organization winds up with an unwinnable game. My research on how successful companies deliver projects on time and on budget revealed that best in class companies include and additional step in the process. They hold a review of the project estimate as an estimate. The review is conducted by experienced individuals and looks at past performance on similar projects and the outcome is a realistic estimate. When the estimate does not meet the market driven what results is not a mandate to do get it done on time anyway but a meaningful discussion on what trade offs can be made to either the project deliverables or resources to make the desired delivery date realistic which moves the players into a winnable game.

The final way in which the corporate world often finds itself playing an unwinnable game is by not creating an environment that sustains winning. A typical area in which this occurs is business systems. An automated process for approval that is cumbersome and difficult to use, has a limited number of access points, or suffers from frequent down time does not provide an environment where the intended game of being fast and nimble can be successfully played. Other environmental factors that can make a game unwinnable include the support that individuals receive from both their immediate management and the other members of their work group, the availability of adequate facilities and capital equipment, and the reward and recognition systems in place. The solution to this problem is to thoughtfully evaluate and analyze all of the environmental factors necessary to create and sustain an winning game and to assure that they are available to the players.

Maret Maxwell, PhD is the Chief Collaborator at Next Step - A Collaborative Services Group. His career spans academic, government, and private enterprise including 20 years as a manager and project manager with a Fortune 100 healthcare company. He currently works with clients to create sustainable improvements in business and leadership performance. Visit his website at http://nextsteppm.com
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