The Great Game of Business

“No company can pay the Great Game of Business

with people who feel like losers.

To play a game—any game—

you have to be in a game-playing frame of mind.”

Jack Stack

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

C          “The great game of business” —what is that?

C          Why compare business to a game?  What’s the value of that?

C          If we were to view business as a game, then what are the rules, how do we win, what do we win, how do we keep score, and how do we play?

Games —in Neuro-Semantics we have taken the metaphor of games and used it to describe our actions, responses, and interactions.  That enables us to think about and describe behavior, relationship, and performance in a playful way.  Then, in recognizing that with this we are talking about the outer game, it has led us to back up to the inner game—the game that we play in our mind.  The inner game of our frames of meaning.

The Inner and Outer Games

With the advent of the Meta-States model, we now recognize that when we have a “second” thought or feeling about a previous thought or feeling, we have set a frame of reference in our mind which creates our inner game.  That’s important.  Why?  Because we can’t play any better outer game than out inner game allows.  So, how’s your inner game?

The inner game of our frames gives us a practical and useful and non-psychological way to talk about the stuff of the mind.  It enables us to explore our thinking, imagining, remembering, and conceptualizing about things that set up the game, creates the rules of the game, and empowers or limits us in playing the game.

In our inner game we construct a world of meaning around something.  We then live in that world.  This world of frames about meanings then is our Matrix that governs the game.  It governs what things are (to us), what things mean (to us), how we read and interpret things, and the skills and behaviors that result.

This is what we mean by neuro-semantics, the neurology and physical embodiment of our inner game that structure our perceptions and understandings.  So what?  What does this mean?  It means that it is not what we think that makes the difference—it is rather our second thoughts, our thoughts about our first thoughts.  Each layer of thoughts govern the first as a feedback loop governing other feedback loops in cybernetics and computer science.  It’s in this way that we reflect on our thinking and layer levels upon levels of ideas.  This creates our frames of meaning within frames of meaning.  It creates our mental matrix of understandings.

How much difference does this make?  A lot!   It makes a world of difference.  Why?  Because the outer games we play in life by the way we act, talk, communicate, behave, and relate come from the inner games of our frames.  In fact, we cannot play a better game than our frames.  So if our outer game in business, health, relationships, learning, skill development, feeling great, etc. isn’t all we want it to be, or believe it can be—the problem isn’t us, it’s our frames.

In Neuro-Semantics this gives us two wonderful metaphors: frames and games.  And that has lead to Frame Games model and a series of Games books and trainings.1 Now we can ask a provocative question:

If business was a game,

then what are the rules for playing it

and for winning at it?

Business Games

In 2002 I wrote a book on business, Games Business Experts Play.  In the research I did for the book, I explored books on business, management, leadership, finance, etc.  In that process, I examined what had been written in the field of NLP on business which is actually a lot.  Then after the book was published I came across a book by a CEO of a remanufacturing corporation.  Jack Stack, the CEO of Springfield Remanufacturing Corporation had written a book that the title of this article, The Great Game of Business (1992).

This book is actually a heroic story about how a frazzled work force become empowered and turned around a failing business.  Interesting enough, CEO Jack Stack found that by setting the game frame as a metaphor for business, he could educate, empower, and enable the blue-collar work force at the factory to completely change the way they thought about their jobs, about work, and about business.

The achievements of this business is chronicled in The Great Game of Business by Jack Stack. There he tells about how he not only transformed a business, but the work force of that business.  In the process he turned the work force into budding entrepreneurs.

It all started when Stack, a college dropout, returned to work in a broken-down International Harvester diesel engine retrofitting plant.  When he got there, things were a mess—products were inefficient and of low-quality.  The work force was dispirited and fatalistic.  Sounds like an opportunity, right?  Given the poor morale, lack of training, and dilapidated infrastructure, Stack at first even wondered if the division was salvageable.

Then something turned him around.  It occurred when he noticed how skilled the workers were at memorizing and following the sports statistics of baseball games.  That gave him an idea.  If they could understand the numbers behind baseball, they could surely understand the basics of business and business numbers.  So working with that dishearted and unmotivated group, he taught and coached them to think of business as a game. And as a game, he knew that they would want to understand how to play it, what’s the score, who’s playing, what they need to do to score, what’s the scorecard, and how can they win.

So the game began, the great game of business.  Stack led a retraining effort that created a startlingly difference work force and this from people who had been unmotivated.  Lathe operators learned to read a balance sheet, sheet metal workers came to appreciate inventory turns and returns on investment.  And all of the employees who were not even in the game one day, soon became business literate entrepreneurs the next.

What happened?   Well, by using an “open book” approach coupled with the most outrageously unbalanced leveraged buyout in corporate history (89 parts debt, 1 part equity), the Springfield Remanufacturing Corporation stepped out from International Harvester and began playing its own game.  That lead to a remarkable success path, an 18,200 percent stock price increase in eight years, zero layoffs, and sales growth exceeding 30 percent annually.  Pretty impressive, wouldn’t you say?

How did all of that happen?

In Stack’s own words:

“The first two laws of business sum up our success: they emphasize how thoroughly dependent we are on one another—and how strong we are because of it.  The best, most efficient, most profitable way to operate a business is to give everybody in the company a voice in saying how the company is run and a stake in the financial outcome, good or bad.”

“Two critical factors in business, one is to make money and the other is to generate cash.  As long as you do those these things, your company is going to be okay, even if you make mistakes along the way, as you inevitably will.” (p. 4)

“In business, you can have great customer service and fail.  You can have a terrific safety record and fail. You can have the best quality in your industry and fail.  People are told what to do in an eight-hour workday, but no one ever shows them how they fit into a bigger picture.  We constantly strive to paint the Big Picture for the people out on the factory floor.  We try to take ignorance out of the workplace and force people to get involved, not with threats and intimidation, but with education.   We want to close the gap between workers and managers.”

“The ignorance of top management assumes that people down the ladder are incapable of understanding its problems and responsibilities.  That’s where the Game comes in.  We tell people that they have the wrong idea about business, that it is really a Game—no more complicated than baseball, or golf or bowling.  You don’t need to be an entrepreneurial genius like Sam Walton to succeed in business.  What you do need is a willingness to learn the rules, master the fundamentals, and play together as a team.” (p. 7)
Consider Stack’s great game of business in terms of the Matrix model.  He began with the Meaning matrix as he empowered his people with more meaning and purpose about things.  He did that by informing and communicating the big picture.  He set a game frame so that “business” made more sense and the numbers of business (ROI) could be understood.   This led to a higher Intention—to win at the game, to be part of a winning team, to use one’s skills and talents to the full, to secure their jobs, etc.

“The only way to know if your job is safe is by looking at the financial statements.  We developed a system that in effect delegates the responsibility for job security by giving people a scorecard and a way to influence the score.”

This describes the open book policy that Stack established in the corporation.  This, in turn, lead to the people feeling empowered, important, significant, and a part of the solution.  And that resulted in people taking ownership of the processes.  It invited them to think like owners.  Talk about the Power and the State Matrices!

“I don’t want people to just work for a job.  I want them to have a purpose in what the hell they are doing.  You can’t have high productivity with faceless people.  They’re not happy with themselves, they’re not happy with their jobs, they bring you down.   Why would anyone think a job was more than a job when that’s all the company expects it to be?  But if you set up the work to be a step on the path to something else, then it takes on a new meaning.  It becomes more than just a job.” (p. 13)

Stack writes that “Ownership is a state of mind” rather than a set of legal rights.  This also is the attitude that we’ve written about in Wealth Building.  When we look at the world from the perceptive of how we can add value, we have entered into the heart of building true wealth.

“We want to get rid of the employee mentality.  The big payoff to us for playing the Game is that we become a more educated, more flexible organization.  We can do all that  because we have a company filled with people who not only are owners, but who think and act like owners, not like employees.  That’s an important distinction.  Getting people to think and act like owners goes far beyond giving them equity.”

It’s this change of attitude that transforms a “mere worker” into an entrepreneur.  It invites the workers to begin to dream and to have higher reasons for what their work.  With those States and Resources, when the workers show up for work they show up and are present and have an eye on the future.  Now that’s the kind of Time matrix you want people to be in, not living in the past whining about all the things they don’t like.
Thinking about business as a great game lead to changes in both leadership and management in the Others matrix.  What do you think?

“We establish credibility … and you only build credibility by telling the truth. You simply can’t operate unless people believe you and believe one another.  Lying and dishonesty are bad business. … Being an SOB gets you nowhere.  That’s why I get angry at the loudmouths who talk about winning through intimidation.  They are dead wrong and are promoting a destructive myth.”

“A big pitfall of managers at all levels is the notion that we have to be perfect. To build confidence in people we have to show them that we’re human, not God, that we don’t have all the answers, that we make lots of mistakes.  Failure is part of the process.  You can’t succeed if you don’t fail sometimes.” (p. 28)

“No company can pay the Great Game of Business with people who feel like losers.  To play a game—any game—you have to be in a game-playing frame of mind.” (p. 39)

Isn’t that great!  Is that the way your manager or CEO thinks?  If you are the leader, is that how you think and relate to your people?  Since “pride comes before ownership,” empowering people who work together to feel like winners necessitates that they learn how to take pride in themselves and in each other.  To do that Stack describes the art of celebration that he developed in his corporation and how he taught the employees to learn to look for positive things to celebrate.  “Celebrate every win” is his motto.
Since the world of business (the World matrix) is about making money and keeping sufficient cash flow so that the business can operate, open books, understanding of numbers, creating quality products and services, creating fewer barriers between management and staff, etc. are key ways that we play the great game of business.

“Once people understand the numbers, once they see how the Game works, once they get it, business makes all the sense in the world.  It puts everything they do into perspective.  It makes them understand why they’re here.  It shows them what their contribution is and why it matters.”

“The big picture is all about motivation.  It’s giving people the reason for doing the job, the purpose of working.  If you’re going to play a game, you have to understand what it means to win.  When you show people the big picture, you define winning.   Most of the problems we have in business today are a direct result of our failure to show people how they fit into the big picture.” (p. 57)

“The more people know about a company, the better that company will perform.  This is an iron-clad rule.  You will always be more successful in business by sharing information with the people you work with than by keeping them in the dark.  Let your people know whatever you know about the company, the division, the department, the particular task at hand.  Information should not be a power tool—it should be a means of education.”  (p. 71)

These quotes speak about the great game of business and the quality of people you need to play the game, do they not?  What are the qualities that enable us to play and to win?  Openness, sharing, operating from a sense of abundance, cooperating, collaboration, being a team player, celebrating each other’s successes, looking for positives, being solution oriented, giving the best quality, owning responsibility, etc.—that almost sounds like the Vision Statement of Neuro-Semantics, doesn’t it?

After the quality of people comes the World matrix of understanding how business works.  This involves recognizing the role and function of making money, creating quality products and services, working together as a team, and keeping people informed.  It involves managing for efficiency, cost, effectiveness, and looking for competitive edges in the marketplaces.

“There are only two ways to make money in business.  One is to be the least-cost producer; the other is to have something nobody else has.  Unless you have a proprietary product or service, you have to be prepared to compete on price, and you can do that best if you are the least-cost producer.  It’s always nice to be in a position to charge a little more.  To do that you have to come up with an edge that customers can’t get anywhere else, quality, particular service, etc.”

“The best way to control costs is to enlist everyone in the effort.  That means providing people with the tools that allow them to make the right decision.  These tools are our magic numbers.  Every business has them.  They are the numbers that tell you whether or not your costs are lower than your competitors.”

“Open-book management is the means by which you share those benchmarks with the people in your company, the way you get everyone involved in the effort to become the least-cost producer.  While you are striving to lower costs, you can also try to come up with additional services—services that nobody else has.”  (p. 79)

“The best argument for open-book management is this: the more educated your work force is about the company, the more capable it is of doing the little things required to get better.  Business is a game of fractions.  If you look at the income statements of corporations today, you’ll see that very few of them have pretax margins above 5%.  So a 1% improvement in profitability is very, very significant.”

As part of the Game of business, Stack created the Great Huddle.  This is a tool for generating more of a team spirit and eliciting the best and most robust attitudes in people.

“People have to see the effects of what they do or they won’t care.  It doesn’t matter if the effects are good or bad.  If you go out everyday and nobody notices whether your work is good, bad, or indifferent, you’ll stop caring.

“Our great Huddles tell people we care. We send the message out every week: we want to know what you’re doing. When we come out of the meeting, we can see the whole field before us.  We know who is where, and how the Game is unfolding and what each of us has to do to make sure we keep moving close to the goal line.

“This is the Great Game of Business.  This is how we play it, week in, week out.  This is where we put into operation all of the principles of open-book management, where we apply all of the lessons we’ve learned in previous years, where we use all of the tools we’ve developed—the standards, the game plan, the goals.  The payout levels, the different ways of wining.  This is how we constantly regenerate the mutual truth and respect, build credibility, light the fire in people’s eyes.  This is how we drive ignorance from the workplace, teaching people to make money, show them why that’s important.” (p. 175)

There’s a lot more in the book, but I think you get the basic idea.  It’s the frames that drive the game.  And if you want to play a new and better, a more productive and fun outer game at work, then it all begins with the inner game of your frames.  That’s why when we coach to both the outer and the inner games, we put the emphasis on the inner game.   That’s because that is where we win or lose.

End Notes:

1: See Frame Games: Persuasion Elegance (2000), and the series of Games books and trainings. These include: Games Slim and Fit People Play, Games for Mastering Fear, Games Business Experts Play, Games Great Lovers Play, Games for Selling Excellence, Games for Prolific Writing, Games for Wealth Building, Games for Accelerated Learning, Matrix Games.
2: For more on the book, see: Stack, Jack.  (1992).  The Great Game of Business.  New York, Doubleday.