Playing Games With My Team, And What I Learned Along The Way

It is bloody hot out and our workload like many agencies is light in the summer. This gives us time to do a few things. As a business owner this means I can organize files, accounts, the office, and our working processes. As a leader building a culture, I took the time today to play a few games with my team.

Let me first say that I am nowhere in this post discounting the time it takes to get good at anything. That is assumed.

Here is what I learned from this afternoon:

  • Competition can be born more than one way
  • Positive play breeds competition
  • Positive competition is formed from a game first being perfectly communicated to all participants. This levels the playing field.
  • While positive competition is great, after a while if nothing changes, it can become stale. Remember being a kid and playing keep away with a younger sibling or smaller friend when they thought it was going to be a game of catch. It stays interesting longer. This is not a positive form of play. The information was not communicated to each participant so they had an equal opportunity for action.
  • So we get to positive competition, and it’s something like playing catch. Both parties agree on a format of catch (throw to them, or through somewhere else agreed to, etc) If the game stays in that format for a while, it can really become repetitive, predictable, and uninteresting. What solves this is changing the game, making things more challenging and allowing all participants to understand the new rules before having to act.
  • We do this by teaching first, so we catch the ball a different way, behind your back, your other hand, etc. Everyone sees this and can choose to adopt that new option in the game.
  • This breeds a culture of positive competition. Learning and improving and challenging ourselves in collaboration.
  • To counter this we take the other form of competition. This is negative competition. It is about giving the other participants little to no time to learn the new facets of the game. The game changes but it creates an environment that supports a negative form of growth and in a large amount of cases it just stunts it completely. Corporate cultures where people are afraid to lead a culture of growth. We have to teach to make this happen in a positive format. And teaching is really hard.
  • So we choose to change the rules unbeknownst to our fellow participants. This is negative competition. This is where the term cutthroat was originally developed.

But in a business, and in our case an environment where creativity IS our product in everything we do, I don’t choose to let “cutthroat” negative competition thrive, or worse, no competitive spirit at all. I choose to build an environment where positive competition is what will actually keep us surviving. Sit with that for a moment. Positive competition as a survival strategy.

Let’s go back to the games.

We sat and first played a very structured game of RISK. The rules are very simple, we all understood them, and even though the learning curve can be steep and it take years to get great at the game, it is very predictable to a point and can get boring very quickly.

Once emails were checked and clients satiated, we moved outside to the park across from the office. Throw a football, catch a football. Easy peasy. This is where things became very cool to witness. As we played and things became consistent, we each would try to catch or throw the ball differently after a while, with everyone else watching and acknowledging these new opportunities to build upon.

There is the same opportunity to build this culture of positive competition within a work environment. But you have to set the tone:

  1. Everyone (EVERYONE) understands the rules, dynamics, goal, limitations, and opportunities
  2. Everyone engaged pays attention to everyone else that is engaged
  3. New rules, technique, challenges, and goals are introduced in the form of teaching. The instigator shows the rest of the group what they are trying, and everyone has the opportunity to build upon this.

Where this gets challenging is when a person who has created something is seeking a disproportionate amount of credit or praise for a contribution. It would be like naming a style of catch and then not wanting anyone else to modify it. This is how companies end up with powerpoint presentations from 2008 still in use.

Take what you want from this. There are very cool things that can come out of fostering a culture of positive competition and putting in measures to avoid the pitfalls from negative competition. I believe this happens when we put the time into effective communication to everyone engaged.


Chris Gostling is an award winning Creative Director & CEO of Momentum Visual Inc., a Toronto based strategic marketing firm.
Chris & Momentum Visual have driven creative marketing strategy and execution for client’s such as Shoppers Drug Mart, Aeroplan, Parmalat Canada, Hain Celestial Canada, Apotex, General Mills, Canadian Tire, and RBC. Beyond being an accredited graphic designer by trade, Chris is a public speaker on topics ranging from strategic thinking, creative presentation coaching, and how to build a successful and well-rounded design portfolio.
In 2009 Chris founded Small Change 4 Big Change. This charitable foundation facilitates dignified food experiences for Toronto’s at-risk and homeless youth. 

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