Russian Dolls, Businesses, and Games

One of the more unique souvenir items in the world is what are known as Russian nesting dolls – a doll in a doll in a doll, perhaps nested up to seven in a set.  When we travelled in Russia the more popular (and large) sets were of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, but since we were limited in luggage space we settled on a smaller set that was special to our family and especially to my wife – Santa Claus.  Probably at least as important was the fact that the Santa dolls pretty much matched the shape of how we pictured Santa, whereas the other two characters more resembled bowling pins.

I mention this, not only to connect to the examples that follow, but because these dolls are still quite unique – there appear to be no known knock-offs from China or Taiwan – whereas the nesting of businesses within businesses and games within games appear to be ubiquitous, but completely unrecognized.

When I worked in product management I attempted to introduce and encourage the concept of “Internal Customers” as I had certain responsibilities not only in product concept from design to reality, but in product demonstration to customers and in training of the sales force.  The concept was, I thought, really simple –

The product of one person’s work is the input for another person’s work (an exchange) and should be delivered with excellence and quality and be suitable for the purpose for which it was developed.

This was no problem on the outgoing side, the trainings needed to be thorough and complete for the sales people, the product needed to solve a problem and do it well for customers, etc.  The problem was on the incoming side – the sales people needed to supply all the information for the demonstration people to do their job well; sales and demonstration people needed to complete expense reports correctly, completely, and on time so the finance people could reimburse them (and so the income statement reflected reality); and sales forecasts needed to bear some resemblance to what would probably happen so the factory could plan production well.  Not a chance.  It didn’t surprise me that the people who worked for me were reluctant to understand this concept, but it did surprise me that upper management and executives didn’t understand it.  The only success I had was to help create a policy that expense reports older than three months (!) would not be reimbursed.  It worked, to some degree, but not without a load of complaints (and some very creative “receipt reconstruction.”)

This “internal customer” idea flows from realizing that there are businesses nested within businesses.  That is, an organization may have divisions which have departments which have groups, each with its own inputs and outputs (“raw materials” and “products”) and budget, and each successive manager (“owner”) must operate on business principles to manage his/her cash flow, the resulting performance against the budget (“profit” or “operating surplus,” as you will), and see to it that “raw materials” and “products” meet expected specifications.

The same nesting goes for the games people (and businesses) play.  Multiple games can be going on at the same time, and one person/business can be involved in multiple games (any of –, 0 or Σ) with multiple people/businesses simultaneously.

Some examples,

  • The Mission Statement for an organization, I contend, always establishes a +Σ game in everyone’s eyes, but how the organization actually operates can be different – the charities mentioned earlier, and Enron and AIG, for example. Even within Enron there were departments and divisions that were operating according to the mission statement, legally, profitably, and kosher according to what you would expect (+Σ).  After all, one of them provided the whistleblower.  For AIG, only one small division in London was responsible for the resulting financial breakdown (Σ) that took the rest of the profitable, legal, kosher company (+Σ) down.  It’s fair to ask, “What did the executives know and when did they know it?” because, they should have known.
  • The NFL (or any other professional or college sport).  First, there’s the “game” you paid to see (0Σ) – two teams on the field contesting each other.  Above that are the “games” the owners are playing with each other (0Σ), and separately with the Commissioner (TV contract shares, and all that (0Σ, maybe) ).  On the field, however, there are games within games (0Σ) – the quarterback and the middle linebacker; each offensive lineman with his defensive counterpart; fullback and the defensive end; wide outs and the corners, and, of course, everybody and the refs.  Oh yes, and the rookie wide out in the locker room trash talking how he will oust the five time All-Pro wide out for a starting position, but he’s still holding out and has yet to put his cleats on
    (Σ).
  • The Communist Party in China (two excellent articles are The Great Fall of China, BW, May 7-13, 2012, and the book review for The Dictator’s Learning Curve, BW, May 21, 2012).  To paraphrase parts of the articles, “… the Bo Xilai situation reveals a breakdown of a “contract” between the leaders and people of China.  The unspoken deal is that the colorless chiefs of the Communist Party will deliver prosperity” (+Σ, “justifying their rule with economic success”), and keep low-level graft under control (Σ, some local corruption is acceptable, “tailored to deliver services without actually opening up the political system”), while in return “the Chinese people will work hard (0Σ) and tolerate their lack of say in how their country functions (Σ)” (game types are mine).
  • US Politics.  First, take Newt Gingrich’s comments on his “relinquishing of the moral high ground in the Republican primaries” (Hard Choices, BW, June 4, 2012).  “I was probably naïve in forgetting that your opponents have every right to try to clutter your message (Σ).”  Really?  “It’s the nature of our current political culture (Σ) that cynicism trumps idealism.”  And trumps integrity and reality as well. Why not add a touch of some 0Σ, or maybe +Σ ?  (again, game types are mine.  This article also presents a couple of sumptuous topics for later discussion.)  Second, check out the games played between Obama and Netanyahu last March 5th (Frenemies in Newsweek, March 19, 2012; Obama Betrayed Ideals on Israel, The Daily Beast online, March 12, 2012).
  • Watch three or more siblings pair up and the different games that ensue (–, 0, + Σ), or teenagers interacting with each other (this can be frightening, especially cyberbullying).

All this brings us back to some fundamentals:

  • Does your organization’s division/department/group have a Mission Statement?  (Do you?)
  • Is it aligned with the organization’s Mission Statement?  (Is yours?)
  • Does your division/department/group operate/behave consistently with the Mission Statement?  (Do you?)
  • If not, is this intentional?  Or incompetence (the Peter Principle is active)?
  • What behaviors or “games” might lead you to suspect the Peter Principle?
  • Can you make those games +Σ ?
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About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 03: The Peter Principle, 04: Games People Play and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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