How to Play to Win Rather than not to Lose


Playing to win trumps playing not to lose, always.

Start worrying when sports teams play to protect their lead rather than build it. Athletic play declines and scores erode when play degenerate into protecting the score.

Playing not to lose is playing it safe. Tragically, protecting current positions is standard operating procedure (SOP) for organizations – especially nonprofits, education, and large corporations.

Play to win:

  1. Throw your best and brightest people at opportunities. Pull them out of situations where they’re playing to protect – maintaining the status quo.
  2. “Steal” ideas from other successful organizations.
  3. Look for hunger and drive. Find individuals hungry to make a difference and give them opportunity. They’ll take more risks and work harder than comfortable long-termers. Give young players a chance.
  4. Trim the fat from established programs and give it to new.
  5. Coach and train to your greatest opportunities. Develop people who can develop opportunities. Generic leadership development yields generic results.
  6. Allocate adequate resources. Realize it takes more to build and innovate than it does to maintain.
  7. Get out of the way. Let your best and brightest run with it. Autonomy instills ownership, vitality, vigor, and pride.
  8. Celebrate victories, often and publicly.


People you expect to celebrate opportunity and innovation, won’t. Long-termers resist, complain, drag their feet, withdraw, and sometimes undermine. Why?

Established players feel neglected and unappreciated when innovation takes center stage. They feel threatened when resources are reallocated. They feel they’re losing what they built, it’s natural even healthy.

  1. Honor established programs don’t neglect them.
  2. Build on or alongside the past where possible.
  3. Tap into the wisdom of experience.
  4. Create cultures that celebrate innovation, everywhere.
  5. Highlight shared values, they bind everyone together.

How can individuals and organizations play to win?

How can leaders maintain the old while pressing toward the new?