Playing to change

I have the most amazing job. In my role, I get to talk with many teams across Google, learn from them and help them find how their ideas fit together. Through this adventure, I notice that teams have a variety of mindsets, different ways of approaching their work. Over time, I’ve organized these mindsets in a loose hierarchy that I want to share with y’all. I am borrowing some of the framings from a book by Alan Laffley and Roger Martin. 

playing to change = grow, garden, change, shift, leave better, generations ahead
playing to win = create value, build, sculpt, inspire, achieve, impart, tomorrow
playing not to lose = defend, protect, outrun, catch up, outwit, survive, now

At the bottom of the hierarchy is what I call the “playing not to lose” mindset. In this mindset, the team is mainly concerned with survival. Defensive posture, “table stakes” conversations, looking at peers on the market and adopting their strategies is a common symptom of this mindset. When playing not to lose, there’s a strong sense of a reactive strategy: “we must do this or <insert catastrophe>.” More likely than not, playing not to lose is a self-fulfilling prophecy, because this mindset leads to strategic myopia, foreclosing on the opportunities that could take the team out of “not losing.”

In the middle, there’s the “playing to win” mindset. Organizations that have their mindset typically know what they want. They are less beholden to “what will <competitor> do?” thinking and are instead focused on creating value. They are usually playing a few moves ahead, able to hold their strategies and have this distinct proactive sense. Playing to win feels good. Teams with this mindset have this spring in their step and a contagious sense of purpose. They build. They sculpt the future: theirs and of those around them. One downside of this mindset is that the teams are often unaware of the second-order effects of their work, and the value they create is limited to a small group of beneficiaries. It is my experience that over time, the burden of those second-order effects gets to the point where playing to win is no longer feasible. The organization either collapses into playing not to lose, defending what they’ve built, or they seek another option.

This is where the third mindset comes in. It’s a lot more rare than the first two. I find that there are teams that “play to change.” They have mastered playing to win and learned to notice the unintended consequences of their value-creation. So they are asking themselves: “what is the change we’d like to see happen in the world as a result of our actions?” The focus shifts from direct value creation to second-order effects. The indirect consequences become part of the theory of change. Strategies are based on them. Teams who operate with this mindset are keen on systems thinking. The purpose of innovation shifts from “being the most/best/awesomest,” to something much deeper and nuanced, connected to the fate of humanity. Organizations with this mindset tend to garden, rather than sculpt. There’s a certain gentleness and awe that comes with it, as well as a sense of detachment from the existential dread.

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