Is business just a game?

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A. R. Samson

Fence Sitter

Many a CEO is a sports enthusiast. Tycoons immerse themselves in sports as team owners, sponsors, or simple spectators. Don’t they skip meetings in order to watch a college game in its final phase? Are they not in a cheerful mood after an important win? (Who’s up for promotion?) This affinity of business for a contest requiring strategy, talent management, and winning tempts the observer to think that running a business can be a game too.

Basketball coaches sometimes promote themselves as mentors not just for calling plays but for strategic management thinking and execution. NBA coaches of championship teams, like Phil Jackson (Eleven Rings), parlay their sports success into second careers as management gurus that understand the art of winning.

Coaching skills can be leveraged into a consultancy for team-building and marketing. This big leap of ambition relies on the receptivity of the target client to suspend disbelief and accept the presumption that a coach can help the company too.

There are reasons why sports (and war) are used by consultants as paradigms for business competition. The game is used as metaphor for organizational development, best practices, and talent retention and recruitment. Timeouts and exhortations from the sidelines mimic coaching. (How badly do you want to win?) Can cheer rallies be far behind?

Sports can provide an imperfect paradigm for business, even as basketball coaches emphasize the competitive side of entrepreneurship.

In sports, the metrics in scoring proclaims a clear winner and loser at the end of the game. Referees provide immediate decisions on what shots should be counted as they hand out penalties for violations of rules. Disputes are settled immediately with the help of instant replay. These conditions of playing within set rules and timeframes do not apply to the corporate game which does not end with a buzzer. Still, in real business too, the officiating can be tilted to one party with the right incentives.

There is no scoring system to declare winners and losers as numbers can vary on how the business is defined even in such accepted metric as market share. Take the pork rind business, for example. Even the lowly mom-and-pop store in the corner can claim dominance by defining the market as “high-cholesterol snacks available at low cost in a convenience store within walking distance of the primary market.” This definition of the market knocks out the fast-food outlets and even snacks in the groceries.

In sports, competing teams are clearly defined. “The others” are definitely the “enemy” and the object is to slaughter them (sometimes with an elbow to the head) by “incentivizing” referees if necessary. (Such injury can be called a blocking foul.) This delineation of “them” and “us” is not so clear-cut in business.

Models of conflict and collaboration where a competitor in one business is a supplier in another, is becoming too frequent with outsourcing, strategic alliances, and supply chains. The TV network, for example, used to have the advertisers and their agencies as customers. With the development of network-produced advertising, this relationship is changing and a former customer is now a competitor. In other areas like branded programming, a TV network and advertiser can work together to insert the latter’s product in a teleserye plot. Even the script can insert a brand — you are the pork rind of my life, making me fat without giving me nutrition. (Okay, that needs work.)

The binary model of sports where the only two outcomes are winning and losing does not apply to business. Even a draw in chess or football is a finite result and bestows a particular point for the eventual ranking. Business approaches look for a win-win solution where collaboration is preferred over a winner-take-all, zero-sum game.

The CEO who uses sports too much as metaphor tends to be demanding. Each deal is a game where one side has to lose. It is not enough to win; the other side must be humiliated. Each task is a test of endurance and survival.

Sports objectives are short term. And athletes have a short useful life when they are on top of their game. Experience is less important than athletic ability and physical stamina. Lessons learned do not count for much as it is the ability to execute the play that matters.

Also, in sports, losing this season only prepares a team for the next one. Losing market share, however, can be a death spiral into being out of the game altogether.


A. R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.