Zero Sum Games

Sorry again for another lack of updates. I’ve been keeping myself busy with vacation, some busy work days, and my sister moving to college. I have found some time to join some discussions on LinkedIn, and one of the topics I keep finding threads leading to is teamwork – How can I make my team more cohesive? How should I measure my team? etc. While the discussions are in the context of technology projects,  all walks of professional life make mistakes when trying to answer this question.

Compromise, collaboration, and cooperation have become the new “dirty c-words.” Look at our political system. As many drift further toward extremes in the political spectrum, we begin to create scenarios where one must lose for the other to win. In today’s game of mud-slinging, it’s the individual with the least dirt (note, I did not say the cleanest – there are not many who are clean) who wins, and the other who loses. And ultimately, anyone who is not in complete alignment with the winning extreme, loses. In the context of the discussions we had on LinkedIn, where both teams were measured on the defect count, the developer had to lose for QA to win (high number of defects identified) and QA had to lose for development to win (low number of defects identified) – and people wonder why they don’t seem to trust and collaborate with one another? They are actively incentivized (sorry for the made up buzzword) not to.

In economic theory, (and incentives are certainly economics) a zero sum game is defined as a situation where one participant’s gain can only be balanced by an equivalent loss from the other participant. Rankings, at-odds metrics, and performance appraisal curves (possibly even performance appraisals in general – but that thought needs its own post) all encourage another “c” word that should be dirtier than it is – competition.

Competition is healthy, to an extent. But today’s business world is increasingly complex – it requires cross-functional collaboration and high efficiency to be successful. If your metrics encourage competition, you may find that your senior staff members hoard the knowledge that makes them more efficient than the newbies, keeping the learning curve high and efficiency low. Even something as innocuous and seemingly harmless as individual performance measurements based solely on individual contributions can discourage sharing. It may not be defined in my project role, but I may have information that could help avoid a potential pitfall if I share it with the team. I’m not necessarily purposely hoarding the information. But if I’m not measured on the overall success of the project, just my individual contribution to it, I likely won’t involve myself in meetings or conversation around this topic since I’m not accountable – we’re all busy, after all (I say “I” and “my” universally in this context). But if I know that, regardless of the success of my individual project workstream, I will not be counted as “successful” unless the project is successful, I’m more likely to lend my expertise to areas outside of my defined role and be a true team member.

One of the participants in our LinkedIn discussion exemplified this in a unique example of a teambuilding exercise. Imagine you are at a bowling alley with your colleagues, all split into several teams. Your first instinct is to absolutely crush as many other teams as possible. But the rules for this game have changed – no one gets a reward at the end unless all of the teams successfully finish at or above a certain milestone. Now, if you’re a bowling expert, your instinct is not to crush other teams, it’s to share tips on how to release the ball, where to aim, etc. because you’ll be rewarded for their success. Ultimately, your focus will be on the success of the entire team, not your team.

I’m not suggesting that team measurement is the silver bullet to team success, or even team cohesiveness. It is simply one variable in the equation, among trust, respect, understanding, and a genuine interest in the project. But team measurement has broad applications. Even in a Sales environment where individual measurements have reigned king for several years, there are benefits to be reaped here. Salespeople sharing their successful pitch, customer knowledge, efficiency tips, etc. are unlikely if I know that sharing these tips and making another salesperson more successful means that I will be viewed as comparatively less successful.

Connecting and Listening Better

Sorry for a lack of updates lately. My grandparents have not been doing so well and I’ve been giving them a lot of my spare time, leaving little time for personal tasks like blogging. No regrets, though. I’m heartbroken that they’re sick, but I’ve really enjoyed spending quality time with them and the rest of my family.

With a night to myself, I watched a few TED talks from some of my favorite speakers, and this video from Julian Treasure caught my interest.

In today’s internet-driven, always connected world where we’re so used to instant satisfaction, we look for ways to digest information rapidly. We don’t listen for context and we don’t think critically, we just hear and acknowledge. Stephen Covey says “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” It’s hard to do that if you’re just listening to find sound bites you can play off of to bounce the conversation back to you.

In the world of constant connections, deep and intimate connections often get overlooked in favor of something more interesting, more entertaining, more “now.” As an example, when I say something funny on facebook I get a lot of comments, likes, etc. But a status about my grandparents got very few, and mostly by my closest friends outside of facebook. I’m not insulted by it – it’s a factor of how people use facebook. It’s just not meant for deeper connections. I wouldn’t consider many of my facebook friends “close.” I don’t know how anyone would keep up with 560 “close” friends. Obviously some of my facebook friends are close friends, and I have many close friends who aren’t on facebook at all. Whether they’re on it or not, my best interactions with my true friends don’t come from facebook.

The point I’m trying to make is not that facebook should be used to facilitate close relationships. Don’t get disappointed when the same people who laugh at your funny statuses don’t cry with your sad ones – it’s just not going to happen. The point is not to get so tied up in the world of instant gratification that you overlook connections in the real world. Try a deeper connection. Try listening. For information, for context, for feeling.

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