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:
- Throw your best and brightest people at opportunities. Pull them out of situations where they’re playing to protect – maintaining the status quo.
- “Steal” ideas from other successful organizations.
- 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.
- Trim the fat from established programs and give it to new.
- Coach and train to your greatest opportunities. Develop people who can develop opportunities. Generic leadership development yields generic results.
- Allocate adequate resources. Realize it takes more to build and innovate than it does to maintain.
- Get out of the way. Let your best and brightest run with it. Autonomy instills ownership, vitality, vigor, and pride.
- 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.
- Honor established programs don’t neglect them.
- Build on or alongside the past where possible.
- Tap into the wisdom of experience.
- Create cultures that celebrate innovation, everywhere.
- 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?
I get the distinction between playing to win and playing to avoid losing that I find in Steve Radcliffe’s book ‘Future Engage Deliver’, and within the context of the competition metaphor it is a helpful distinction. However, especially in relation to the subject of leadership, isn’t it time that we replaced that metaphor with one about co-operation and collaboration and move towards what we might call distributed leadership?
I see your point and the suggestion that old ways of leading (top down) may not be that innovative.
I think, innovation requires a champion. However, that champion can and must collaborate. Does that sound like I’m playing both sides?
I don’t think, at least at the beginning, that we collaborate our way into innovation.
Interested in your insights,
Well, now your comment leads me to search for examples and counter examples. I am sure that in my own work that leadership has been best when it has been collaborative. That kind of leadership is rare and also highly creative and innovative, so I say ‘yes’ to collaborating our way into innovation (please don’t mistake collaboration for committees and working groups). Whilst thinking about your reply I came across an invitation to a seminar at http://www.ppdlearning.co.uk/nlp-training/nlp-training/seminars/robert-dilts-new-seminar/ on just this subject.
Dan, great insights. Reminds me of the Army quandary of when to commit your reserve (that part of your force you held back). Best answer: use it to exploit success. If you commit it to stave off defeat, the likely outcome of the battle is a stalemate.
It’s helpful to remember that your current status quo was someone else’s great idea. As you move on, you need to find a way to honor that. I’ve always tried to cast the status quo as the springboard that enables us to move on.
It’s hard to get people to see that there is no such thing as statis. Things either grow or they decay/erode/atrophy. That’s as true for your team as it is for anything else. If you can get your people to understand that the only way not to slide back is to keep pushing forward, your good ones will be far less likely to simply protect what they currently have.
You give solid advice in this post. Great thinking and communicating.
Speaking of solid advice! Every sentence of your comments drips with wisdom. I hope LF readers get down into the comments. They are so rich.
“Use your resources to exploit success. The best you’ll get if you’re staving off defeat is a stalemate…” I’m taking that one to the bank.
Thanks for adding value.
I love Leadership Freak – it’s a great way to get top notch advice in a bite size format. Lately I’ve been finding myself searching for your comments as well. You often have an interesting point of view which makes me appreciate Dan’s pearls of wisdom even more! Both of you – please keep up the good work!
Thanks benzeknees… I’m with you… I love the whole blogging experience. I’m better for it. Cheers
Thank you. It’s one of the great things about the LF community – there are a lot of regulars here with some great things to share.
I’d even go so far as to say that playing not to lose is worse than playing it safe. It’s kind of like standing still, and we all know what happens to those who stand still in this environment.
I like the balance in your ideas here, Dan. Playing to win always includes honoring what came before, and paying attention to who and what are still working.
I’d reframe the question away from “maintaining the old while pressing toward the new” to move away from the dichotomy I hear in that. Instead, how does leadership best execute its role of continually scanning the environment to find the next challenges and opportunities and then create the conditions in the organization that will make it possible to capitalize on what it finds?
You’ve hit on one of my weaknesses. I default to an either/or approach too quickly where both/and often serves better.
Thanks for your observation and insight!
Leaders can set the example first. I had a call with a coaching client this week who actually said ” do as I say not as I do.” when talking about her team. I challenged her on it. If organizations want to play to win, it starts at the top.
Courageous leaders inspire courage in others. Cowardly leaders encourage self-protection.
Thanks for joining in. You are so right.
“Get out of the way.” Love that one.
Now if we can just do it…
I like the idea of “trimming the fat” It’s definitely best not to hang on to ideas that have grown stale which seems to be why some companies have to resort to unethical tactics. It is essential to have new things ready to go when the old stuff runs outta steam. BTW, I can see you’ve gotten multiple awards already, but I passed along the 7×7 Link Award to you. Check it out and pass it along if you can! http://wishiwerethere7.wordpress.com/2012/01/05/and-the-winner-is-me/
Love seeing you drop in again… thanks. And thanks for fleshing an idea out.
Honored that you pointed me out as on or your favorites.
Best to you,
This is a huge challenge. I don’t know how many times my new suggestions and ideas have generated opposition because my hearers thought that suggesting change implied criticism of prior practice.
I think that experience validates every suggestion here: I’m sure it was painful experience. 🙂
Hey Mr. P,
It is easy to inadvertently threaten… just knowing that, helps.
Regarding experience: You know there is lots of experience behind this post.
Experience is doing it wrong and learning. I’ve done plenty of that and have far to go, too.
Great stuff as usual, Dan. Living in Indianapolis I am reminded of the season we were 14 – 0 (uh, not 2 -14) and there was such debate about resting people. We all know what happened. They lost the last two games. Now they did make it to the Super Bowl, but much of the expressed sentiment was we should have gone for it.
The applicable piece is about creating opportunity. As a leader I think of it first as, “Where is My head, my heart? What behaviors am I exhibiting?” Am I exhibiting the energy of innovation…asking, “Is that the only right answer? Is this your best work? What else did you explore in arriving at this conclusion?” Greg said it well when he talked about decay and erosion if we stay with the status quo. Growth is a mindset. I don’t see it exhibited near as much as I’d like. Whether it is fear, comfort, complacency, all of the above it doesn’t matter. If you want to be a higher performing organization leadership must exhibit the behavior of growth, innovation, risk, open to change. You do that well and you will be happy to have the “get out of the way” part be your biggest problem.
Jim, your point about behaviors is excellent. It’s often easier to conceptualize improvement than it is to dig in and implement it. Leaders too often behave like the guy who decides to lose weight but goes back to all the same restaurants.
It is a leadership dance-scanning the horizon for new, innovative approaches and implementing them (second part much harder-walking the talk), yet eschewing the mantle of ‘flavor of the month’ leadership.
The foundation under innovation has to be respect– for the work being done, those doing the work and ultimately the customer. Again a dance, acknowledging and celebrating the work/worker, yet saying/showing we want to find even better ways to serve…the customer.
And underneath it all is a philosophy of continuous learning. Those few words are multi-layered and any misstep in the layers is immediately noted by all involved. If leaders say they value learning yet don’t overtly endorse continuous training options, they have missed a number of beats. If they say they value learning, yet don’t conduct frequent performance reviews on themselves and those that are accountable, they have their shoes tied together and fall. If they knee jerk/react to short term dissonance, the long term result is just noise to the customer. It’s okay to have dissonance, in fact, essential to growth. So, as the foundation, acknowledging and owning that, periodically, we will be uncomfortable, out of our element, and that is intentional and needed so that we can learn, grow, and serve our customers even better.
Aw, Doc, you had to hit me with the continuous learning thing. As I read your comment I was forced to admit that while I give myself ample opportunities to learn, I’m not as committed to providing the same opportunities throughout the organization. That’s a great piece of accountability.
You are always so eloquent. Love your metaphors.
One of my leadership blunders is making people feel disrespected because of my passion for change and innovation.
I didn’t do it intentionally but when passion for MY projects overshadows genuine passion for what others are doing, they feel disrespected.
I’m thankful for you,
How can individuals and organizations play to win? There are just so many sports analogies that lend themselves to this question! From an individual standpoint, I think it is important to define “win.” In many organization’s, an individual’s “win” may be a peer’s “loss” – there needs to be some strategic leadership that helps channel all of that into a “plus” for the organization that also helps the individual players feel like they made a contribution.
How can leaders maintain the old while pressing toward the new?
This is easier said than done, but I think the key is in fostering a culture in which “new” is not “scary.” Prove to people a few times that you will follow through on what you say, that you will keep them informed to the degree possible, and that you will actively make them feel a part of the team, and it’s likely that they will find it within themselves to embrace the “new” even when it’s hard to let go of an overdependence on the “old.”
Thanks for focusing on individual application. I wanted to focus on individual winning but ended up more on the organizational side. Too many ideas and too little room.
Define the win… how simple and pure. Ask yourself and the people you’re working with…what does winning look like and see what answers you get.
Take it to a new level by asking, How can I help you win…
Thank you for enriching the conversation… great stuff.
Best to you,
I am currently on a second interview and am hoping that point number three is important to them, as I believe I demonstrated a hunger to lead people and help them find potential. I even mentioned leadership freak as being one of the places that inspires me to want to lead , hows that for a plug 🙂
p.s. Glad you are feeling better
Best wishes on the job front.
I’m wondering if saying “freak” in a job interview is a good thing?? 🙂 But, thanks for the plug.
Always glad to see you’ve dropped in…
One is defense and the other offense. Great, really great post today. Thanks!
Great questions! I’m a BIG believer in “stealing” ideas, not only from successful organizations but from any source available outside our company’s 4 walls. We have to invest in bringing ideas and observations from the outside and in creating an environment that encourages learning and grappling with those ideas. Also, playing to win is all about discarding a ME mentality and replacing it with a WE outlook.
And I think it’s possible to honor where we’ve been while looking to innovate our way to where we’re going. Thanks for a great post!
Great ideas to remain focused on winning with new and innovative efforts. It’s the leader who shall drive the team to look for new ideas that can bring unprecedented success for an organization.
Encouragement, motivation and rewards/recognition are the tools for inspiring employees to perform differently and reach the pinnacle by outstanding results.
Simple yet brilliant.