The Power Game

In last week’s Managerial Leadership class, we played a fascinating game directed by Professor Buck. Here’s how to play.

Ingredients: 30 or more managers, one dollar each

Time to cook: 30 mins

Instructions:

  • Take one dollar from each of the managers.
  • Segment out the managers. Make a random 3 top management, a random few middle management, and the rest on the bottom.
  • Give 2/3 of the cash to the top managers, and 1/3 of the cash to the middle managers.
  • Communicate the rules of the game. Top management can talk to anyone. Middle management have to knock before entering a room containing top management. Bottom management can’t talk to top management, and have to know before entering a room containing middle management.
  • Separate the three tiers into different rooms.

Note that there is no real objective for the organisation.

Scaling up

Following the discussion of our simulation and previous examples our Prof had conducted, we came away with a bunch of insights.

Firstly, here’s how everyone feels.

  • Top tier: burdened with responsibility
  • Middle tier: unsure what they need to do exactly
  • Bottom tier: powerless, bored. (Some people in this tier left during the simulation.)

Isn’t that a wonderful microcosm of a real company? Here’s what we learned.

  • The first five minutes are critical. (This is just like a CEO’s “first 90 days”.) For the leaders, they go very quickly – for the bottom tier who have no idea what to do yet, they go very slowly.
  • Management should say something to the bottom tier as soon as possible. In this case where noone has any clue, that can’t stop management communicating.
  • It may be tempting to wait until you have a full plan before presenting it to the bottom tier. However, this means you will wait too long.
  • Being totally authoritative is not going to work. Being totally participative is not going to work. The bottom tier both need direction, and need to participate. This is a fundamental contradiction.

Here’s what I see as the solutions to this problem.

  • It seems that the best way is to come to the bottom tier as soon as possible and say “we have no idea what we’re doing, but we’re working on it. By the way, let us know if you have any ideas.”
  • If the organisation is not small, or if what you’re deciding isn’t that important, or if you need to decide quickly, eliminate middle tiers and make decisions in a more dictatorial fashion.

The People Have Spoken

After the game, Professor Buck shared a story with us about another instance of the game. Here’s what happened.

The top tier went away, taking the money with them. They thought about it for a long time – most of the game time – and decided that the best thing was to go to the local shop, buy a whole bunch of snacks and drinks, and have a party for the remaining part of the class. They were pretty pleased with themselves, and thought that this was the best idea that they could have come up with.

Meanwhile the bottom tier was left to its own devices. They had a long debate over the time they had … and they decided that the best thing was to go to the local shop, buy a whole bunch of snacks and drinks, and have a party for the remaining part of the class. They were pretty pleased with themselves, and thought that this was the best idea that they could have come up with.

So the top tier do exactly that, and go and buy the snacks and drinks. They walk in at the end of the time, and lay everything out on a table at the front of the classroom, and turn to the crowd, expecting a great reception for the idea.

Instead, there is silence.

Then, one of the bottom tier in the front row gets up, walks over to the food, and throws it onto the floor.

For the remainder of the time, noone will touch any of the food even though it is exactly what they wanted.

This was a wonderful illustration of this principle:

  • People will execute a decision if they are part of the decision process, even if they disagree.
  • People will refuse to execute a decision if they are not part of the decision process, even if they agree.

Culture Testing

Another quick tidbit – you know how everyone says you need a shared culture and that it needs to align? Bizarrely, it’s possible to test roughly for culture.

  • Ask: what do you do?
  • Ask: and why is that important?
  • Ask: and why is that important?
  • Ask: and why is that important?
  • Ask: and why is that important?
  • Ask: and why is that important?

The last answer will report culture. Some will say “to deliver shareholder value”, some will report “to make people happier”, some will report “so I can get paid” and so on. It’s a neat way of getting an answer on culture, and once you have that you can check whether everyone is aligned with each other, and whether they are aligned with the mission of the company.

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