Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons vs the art of business strategy

For those who have ever played Dungeons and Dragons then there are some basic practices which become ingrained. These same practices appear in MMORPG such as world of warcraft (WoW). These include ...

1) The importance of maps. Before launching your team of elves, halflings and dwarves into the midst of a battle then the first thing you do is scout out the landscape and improve your situational awareness. Understanding the landscape is critical to strategic play, to learning, to using force multipiers and to not getting spanked (beaten soundly by the opponent).

2) The importance of capabilities and roles. The biggest battles require a multitude of roles from damage (those who do our spanking usually from range) to tanking (defensive protection) to healing (those tanks get spanked a lot and need healing from our Clerics) to crowd control (those Wizard sleep spells aren't there for just looking at). The way you play and how the roles are deployed depends upon the scenario. Of course, without situational awareness then you're at a huge disadvantage.

3) The importance of team play. A multitude of roles requires team play which means communication, co-ordination, acting in the interests of the team etc. If you're taking on a Lich or a Beholder then your team (unless massively overpowered) better be on the ball. 

4) The importance of preparation. There's no point turning upto the fight with a Sphere of Annihilation if you don't know how to use it. Preparation, the role of each group, working with each other, timing and discussion of strategic / tactical plays are all essential elements to good play.

So, how does this compare to business?

1) Maps. In general we don't have them. Most companies suffer from poor situational awareness being caught out by predictable changes. The most telling factor here is that business strategy is normally a tyranny of action (how, what and when) as opposed to awareness (where and why).

2) Capabilities and Roles. On the whole, we do a bit better here as we recognise multiple capabilities (aptitudes) are needed. However, we often fall down by not considering attitude, the scenario (we have poor situational awareness) and isolation (operation in silos).

3) Team Play. We certainly try, often having team building exercises which can be a bit hit or miss. We often complain about communication despite the plethora of tools available. The problem can usually be traced back to poor situational awareness - if we don't know the landscape and create a plan of attack based upon this (replacing it instead with vague notions of vision or a story) then it's difficult to communicate how things are actually going.

4) Preparation. Almost non-existent. In some areas we might attempt scenario planning and a few exec games (e.g. imagine you're a startup trying to disrupt your business) but on the whole we're often so busy with immediate work (e.g. firefighting) that there is little time to build an effective and prepared team. The largest guilds in some of these MMORPGs have many hundreds to thousands of players supported with extensive wikis, communication mechanisms, training and development, tactical game plays, UI engineering, structure, leadership, specialist cells and information systems. 

There's an awful lot to be said for learning about these aspects from online games - though it's rarely done effectively. However for anyone under the illusion that business is some bastion of strategic play then can I suggest you spend a few minutes either watching an experienced group play D&D or an organised raid on WoW. Those people tend to use levels of strategic and tactical play that businesses can only dream of.

Fortunately in business we're often up against other organisations that equally lack situational awareness, suffer from isolation, have weak team play, poor communication and lack preparation. The effect is somewhat remarkably similar to a group of inexperienced D&D players just charging at each other. An exciting brawl of chaos with often single participants (hero players) making the difference. Of course, face either team (or in fact both teams) against an experienced and well rehearsed group then it stops becoming a brawl and starts becoming a massacre. Opposing Clerics get wiped first, followed by crowd control, tanks and then poor (and undefended) damage dealers.

In the world of business, there are some really dangerous groups out there e.g. Amazon. Don't expect to go up against them with the usual 'Charge!!' approach. You won't last long. That's a hint to those gaming companies starting to be concerned about Amazon's encroachment into their space. Start learning from your own online players.