Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Playing to Win?

Over the past few months I've been working on the creation of a couple of new businesses. As is often the case when building a new business, you start out with an idea and a group of people who believe in that idea. Then, as you move through the process of establishing the business, taking on investors, and so on, things get complicated. There are lawyers to meet with, accountants to advise you, documents to sign... you get the idea. Things move quickly from a vision of doing great things to discussions of how to protect everyone's interests.

Playing to Win/Playing not to Lose
I've been thinking a lot lately how something that starts with a vision of doing something can transition into a discussion of how to protect yourself just in case you actually do do something. Or, alternatively, how to protect yourself in case you end up doing nothing.

Even when everyone involved is doing the best the can to contribute to making the new business work, many people come from a place of fear: they are playing not to lose. They are protective of their ideas, their money, their position, etc.

While this is prudent (i.e., from a conventional wisdom perspective, it seems makes sense to do this), I've decided that it isn't how I want to live my life. I would rather play to win at the risk losing, than play not to lose at the risk of winning.

Cause and Effect
This discussion is not simply philosophical. When you play to win (attitudinally), you increase the likelihood of winning; you also, might lose big-time. When you play not to lose, you increase the likelihood of not losing; you also might never win big-time.

Let's say that you have an amazing new idea that would make a great business. The odds are, no matter how great your idea is, there are at least several or many or thousands of people on the planet that have had the same great idea. In business, oftentimes the first person to bring their idea to market wins. It's one of those timing is everything scenarios.

With new ideas, if you play not lose, you move cautiously (i.e., slowly), you hesitate when you would otherwise move, you spend time and thought on what could go wrong, rather than making things go right. In short, you increase the likelihood that you won't be first.

Now, if you're someone running a business that is well established and dominant in a market, playing not lose can be a great strategy. Consider the large telephone companies like Verizon and Cingular (now AT&T). They were really late in coming to the whole Internet thing and to cellular phones, but by biding their time, the newcomers (who were all playing to win) slowly fell by the wayside. The play not to lose crowd won.

Equally Yoked
So, in some cases, playing not to lose is a great strategy. In others, playing to win is a great strategy. The first question is: which type of person are you?

Are you someone who plays to win or are you someone who prefers to play not to lose. By the way, my question has nothing to do with genetics or upbringing; it's a question of who you want to be and how you want to live.

Based on your answer, the second question is: what are the tasks and activities that are aligned with your temperament? If you're a play-to-win type, then you may want to take on new ideas, new businesses, investigating breakthroughs, etc. If you're a play not to lose type, then you may fare better by working with mature ideas, businesses and organizations. Both are great! The question is one of aligning your temperament and your activities.

The third question is: are your business partners of the same temperament? If not, you'll end up spending hours debating the merits of two philosophies that are both valid. In the end, the challenges aren't in the validity of the philosophies; they're in the fact that they're simply incompatible.

Beware of Counterfeits
One more note: not everyone who says that they're playing to win, is. There are many people who say that they're playing to win simply because they don't actually have anything to lose. Even though these folks may be playing to win, their philosophy can change quickly when they actually have something to lose.

A second group of counterfeits is quite similar, but on the opposite end of the spectrum. They have so much, that losing doesn't really bother them. In this case, the change occurs when they've lost enough where losing any more might actually make a difference to them.

Conclusion
In any situation, we may find ourselves playing to win or playing not to lose. Depending on the task we've undertaken, either of these might be the most useful strategy. The important thing is being aware of our approach and the requirements of the task, and ensuring that they're aligned.

If the task at hand involves more than just you, then you'll want to make sure that everyone involved is doing the same thing.

Have a great Wednesday!

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