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Are you playing the right game?



When I was growing up, my family used to play a game called “Trouble”. It was what I call a straightforward, ‘A to B’ game. It had a clear starting point (A), a clear path to follow and a clear idea of what the desired outcome was (B). To win, you needed to get your four pieces around the board and do it faster than anyone else. Simple rules and very little thinking.


But not all games are A to B, like Trouble. Take chess for example. While we know in theory what outcome we want (get our opponent into a position of ‘check-mate’) there are many starting points, many possible paths and plenty of scenarios that deliver that outcome. Even the first move is complex, as there are over 1300 possible openings to choose from.


At work, and in life, our environment and circumstances determine the kind of game we need to play. In this article, we’ll explore the difference and how playing the right game in our heads impacts our ability to achieve the outcomes we need.


Stable environments lend themselves to a straightforward, A to B kind of approach. Like the game ‘Trouble’, they enable us to predict our future path and they are easier to navigate. We need to think less and can rely on assumptions and existing knowledge.


Dynamic environments, however, require us to play a different kind of game. This is not straight-forward. They are ambiguous and complex, so instead of the path being straightforward, it becomes uncertain or as I describe it - ‘curly’.


If we play an ‘A to B game’ in these circumstances, the journey is dominated by frustration. Just when we think we’re on track and start sprinting to our destination, we bash into an unpredicted obstacle. Then, just when we’ve worked everything out and have managed to get back on track... BANG! We hit another obstacle. Ugggh!


So, how can we reduce this frustration and re-channel the energy we waste into more satisfying pursuits? Here is something to try.


Instead of thinking of the desired path as being straightforward, start out expecting the road to be ‘curly’ in shape. In this way, when something unexpected disrupts the path, instead of telling yourself that it is pushing you ‘off track’, see the detour as being part of the original plan.


Now, at this point you may be thinking “Isn’t that the slow road? We don’t have time for the slow road?”


It’s true that mathematically, a ‘curly’ path is longer than one that goes straight from A to B. However, what maths fails to consider is the environment.


If you were on one of the highest peaks in the Himalayas, speeding straight ahead might be the fastest and the shortest way down, but it would not deliver the best outcome.


Unpredictable or disrupted terrain requires us to play a fundamentally different game and it starts and is won in our heads.


The ‘curly’ approach to thinking and conversations covers more ground. It chooses pace and progress over speed and acceleration.


Curly thinking is like winding our way through mountainous terrain, taking it stage by stage, learning as we go and adjusting to what is happening in the moment. It is structured, controlled and calm.