What Leaders Can Learn from Playing Video Games: Why Excellence is a Mystery

What Leaders Can Learn from Playing Video Games: Why Excellence is a Mystery

Be it Angry Birds or Galaga, Fallout or Call of Duty, knowing what good likes like is pretty easy. You gain an achievement, rack up three stars or land on a leaderboard. In the pre-social gaming days, it was a local leaderboard, the one on the game you were playing at Shakey’s Pizza during lunch from your sys op job on a HP 3000. Today your achievements are splattered across screens around the world. Good is easy to find, excellence not so much.

I’ll use Angry Birds as an example. Getting three stars is good, it isn’t excellent. If you race through the game and try to achieve three stars you should be able to do that pretty readily. But if you go back and play the same scene again, you will find that you can do better, sometimes a lot better.

There are three elements to this mystery of excellence.

  1. They don’t tell you want good looks like. For managers, this is the most important lesson. Like gaming, going into some new venture or tackling a project you have never seen before means you don’t know what good looks like. You may have some conceptual goal that suggests where you want to be when the project is complete, but unless you’ve done it before, more than once, you don’t know what good looks like. In Angry Birds, you shoot a bird, kill some pigs, hit a score and if it’s high enough, you get three stars. But look around the scene, there is a lot of stuff sitting around. All of that stuff is worth points. You have literally left points either hanging or on the ground. In work, that same thing is true. Most of us don’t fail miserably on a project, but we also don’t do excellent work the first time out. Excellence requires practice, knowledge of the territory and accumulated skill. You achieve those things the first time you get it right, but you don’t master them. If you only do a task or project once, you probably won’t achieve excellence ever, so don’t be disappointed. The bigger lesson is if you do it right once, if you survive, if you do it well, don’t let that be your model. Find ways to keep improving because there are still better ways to do anything if you look back and reflect on what’s still left hanging, or on the ground, when you are done.
  2. Scoring details aren’t detailed. You can’t do anything about this in a game, but you can do something about this as a manager. Games give you a total score, or a sub-score, they rarely give you details about what you didn’t achieve it and where you left points laying around. It’s up to you to build the mental model of the power-ups you missed or the demons you failed to kill. You can be casual and just try to remember, or you can write things down and keep a journal. That’s hardcore. Work runs at a slower pace, but it requires the same kind of mental model—to become excellent, you have to be hardcore all of the time. You have to write down what you are measuring and see if that helps you achieve your goal, and what it tells you about the journey and your alignment along the path. If you look back at item one above, though, you will need to keep in mind that the path might change, and therefore what you measure might need to change with it. At the end of a project, process or task you will have a list of indicators that you can measure and some correlation between those indicators and your final score. And you can apply and refine them each time through the same journey. Game designers make you do that work. They just give you tallies. At work you design the game, and its up to you to create measurements that meaningfully guide you, and others, along the journey. (Many managers insist on SMART as an acronym for creating a measurement system. As this Mark Murphy post on Forbes suggest, SMART goals can sometimes be dumb. I’ll add to Marks concerns by pointing out that if you are entering new territory that achievable can’t be known and realistic in in the process of being defined.)
  3. The system has been hacked. If you look at the top achievement in Angry Birds, you will find that everyone has the same score. That score is the biggest number a hacker can shove into the database. It is not a real score. That means that you can’t know, going in, what the real top score is for anything. The maker of the game perhaps doesn’t even know, and if they do, they don’t use it for filtering false scores. In the real world, sometimes the system has been hacked as well. Managers who make assignments often have their view of what they think good likes like that they don’t share. They either do this because they are: 1.) poor communicators, 2.) too over worked, which makes them poor communicators and poor managers, or 3.) just political: They know what good looks like but they aren’t telling, in hopes that they can instruct you when you get it wrong, or take some credit for raising you right. You can’t beat a hacked system unless you hack it, which leaves you with one choice: discovering for yourself what excellence really looks like. And that take an investment, if at work, or if you are slinging little birds and little pigs.

He shoots, he scores

Regardless of game mechanics, in the real world, even the smartest people don’t know what excellence looks like. Bill Gates did not imagine this Microsoft, nor Steve Jobs this Apple. They didn’t imagine the products when they started, or the state of the company. Even for the earliest products they under estimated what excellence looked like in terms of quality and sales, design and channel. In a climate that thrives on innovation, forecasting the success of anything is a fools errand, because there is not data.

Leading people, or managing them on a path forward through the jungle of uncertainty requires bravery and curiosity. Bravery and curiosity, then, are attributes that should top the list for hiring managers. When going into the unknown, knowing the wrong things can be almost as dangerous, perhaps more so, than admitting you don’t know and going in with the objective of paying attention to everything.

Curiosity and bravery keep people going forward even in the unknown, and successful innovations require people who go forward from unknown to learning, from challenge to overcoming obstacles. Curious and brave people navigate and survive—and when they come out the other side of the task or project—they will be able to tell you what good looks like. Send them in again and they will hunt for excellence.

And that’s Why Excellence is a Mystery.

Note: I have found the hacking of Game Center disturbing and have written about it on iPhone Life before. A developer recently shared that once the entry to the hack is found, they don’t police it because once they clear it or set a limit, people quickly either reassert scores or work until they find the highest score possible and then push that in. That seems rather defeatist, and I can see that for a small game maker that is an issue. Apple needs to fix the entry point.