I was working in a team of 8 people in a contest last year. I had come out of the contest with a few epiphanies. But before I go on to talk about those epiphanies, we should be on the same page. And that’s the acceptance of the notion that efficiency is the keystone to success. And If a working procedure is not as efficient as you’d like it to be, optimization is key. So two things-

  • Efficiency is the keystone to success.
  • Optimization is key

About The nature of contention

The constraints that govern success in contests also govern work environments.

The finite game vs. The infinite game

The finite game:

The rules are well defined, the competing parties are well identified. Examples of this game would be school contests, football matches, fights, races, etc. In the finite game, the goal is to win.

The infinite game:

The rules are fast and loose, and the competing parties are not well identified. Examples would be the realm of business, war, etc. Any phenomenon that involves numerous parties unbeknownst to each other vying for something that transcends the importance of themselves is an ‘Infinite game.’ It’s infinite because the game goes on even when one or more parties fail to survive. Survival is the goal in this game. It’s a royal rumble or a last-man standing competition.

How to apply these concepts in an actual workplace

In a contest, since you’re in a finite game-

  • Ruminating about the potential of other teams will lead to an increase in inefficiency. The only source of inspiration for your team should ideally be your own team members. This helps circulate the feeling of mutual trust and mutual respect. Let your team drive you and you, your team. And don’t let yourself compare your ability to someone in another team as this might lead you to worry about your own potential performance. Sustaining your confidence will help you see things with more ease and clarity.
  • Have a top-down chain of command. The top-down chain of command is popularly characterised as ‘closed-minded’ whereby decisions only come from the higher echelons. But it’s important to realize that the source of decisions is not always a measure of the openness. Openness is measured by the reward structure and the routes of dialectic. How you treat mistakes, certain attitudes, certain sub-cultures, etc.- whether you reward them or punish them- defines your reward structure. And where you welcome debate, opinions and constructive criticism from defines your routes of dialectic. It’s the paths through which your team receives input. There’s a talk by Elon Musk wherein he talks about how reward structures induce either creativity or productivity. I highly recommend it.

Having a top-down structure in a finite game helps lay out the tasks and sub-tasks and assign them to each individual more efficiently than any other structure since no amount of thinking goes into deciding who is most suited for a given task. The manager would have a team of individuals with clear roles, and the tasks would more or less assign themselves.

In business, since you’re in an infinite game-

  • Survey the market, survey the playing field. Since there’s mutual influence in an infinite game, the achievability of your ultimate goal or, more technically, your objectives would be set by the caliber of your competitors. The measure of the caliber of your competitors is, apart from the QoS (Quality of Service), is the
  1. Reach of the company
  2. Strength of the brand name

Be on top of the list of competitors. A possible way to do this for your company is having a board in the common space where people could write about the new developments they’ve read or heard about.

Which chain of command is most efficient is harder to figure out for an infinite game. I believe that other properties are more important than the chain of command for an infinite game. This leads me to,

The properties of work-environments

The spontaneous work environment: This work environment is characterized by spontaneity, wherein it’s okay for decisions and action plans to come from varied sources. Sometimes, this spontaneity is a consequence of tasks emerging with little or no notice, causing the WE to become a reactive environment at the same time.

The rigorous work environment: Characterised by rigor, the decisions and action plans for this WE should come from a preset source. It’s not subject to the ‘out of the blue’ tasks that we get in spontaneous WE’s.

Of course, no work environment is entirely characterized by these properties. But it can be more of a proactive one than a reactive one and vice versa — the same for the spontaneous and rigorous properties.

In my experience, it’s not a requirement for a work environment to be a proactive or a reactive one. But it must choose to be either a spontaneous or a rigorous one. I deliberately used the word ‘Choose’ in the last sentence. And this is where the role of leaders comes in.

If you look at wars, you’ll see that there’s no buffer time within which a planned or an objective-driven decision can be taken. And for the same reason, the decisions often don’t come from a particular rank. Information is forcefully fed to the unit or battalion, and the battalion has to react. This is an example of a spontaneous-reactive work environment. With that said, if the leader of the battalion decides or ‘chooses’ to try to remain rigorous, you can imagine his stubbornness being replied to with catastrophic consequences.

In a business scenario, there are times when the WE has to become one of the four types of WE’s illustrated in my little graphic above. Some departments are inherently one of the four; others have to adjust depending on the situation they’re in. During these times of adjustment, the leader is the entity that has to set the tone and direction. By being conscious of what game it’s playing and which property-pair defines the WE best, the leader would be able to increase the efficiency of the WE. When the WE is exhibiting more proactive-spontaneous properties, there’s more time to strategize the action plans even if tasks emerge ‘spontaneously’, as described before when defining the spontaneous WE. The leader should be conscious of this privilege (Being able to strategize anything is a privilege) and act accordingly. And when the WE exhibits other properties, the leader adjusts again. In the end, the leader should drive the work environment so that the work environment becomes conscious of what game it’s playing.


Further reading:

  1. (8) Elon Musk’s Complete interview at Air Force Space Pitch Day — YouTube

A servant of the human race, a thinker of the complicated and an introspector in the mind.