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.


One Response to Zero Sum Games

  1. Josh Squires says:

    I completely agree with your assessment. It has been my professional experience that zero sum grading is far less productive. Since I got into marketing I began to see metrics centered on results. As I deal mainly in online marketing media, I often work closely with a wide range of “departments” (I am self-employed and contract out for work I can’t do myself- such as web development). Results are best when everyone involved understands that success of the end product is highest priority.

    I have heard of agencies that break the office into multi-discipline teams and each team is assigned a client or project. The success of their project earns them awards, bonuses, etc. Positive reinforcement. Salaries tend to be slightly lower than average, but the bonuses are huge and drive all works to greater productivity through striving toward a single, unifying goal.

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