I wonder if in the framing of organizational mindsets, there’s a pattern with transitions across playing to win and playing not to lose. It seems that all teams that I’ve been on and worked with struggled through these transitions, and there appears to be a relationship between these transitions and the presence of the challenge of coherence. From this observation, a wild 2×2 popped out, and the following story with it.
Given the axis of degrees of coherence (high and low) and the axis split between mindset (playing to win and playing to lose), there are four quadrants.
In the upper-right quadrant, the organization experiences very few challenges of coherence and is playing to win. The teams are clicking, leads are high-fiving each other in the hallways, and there are so many congrats being sent over email that someone even wrote a program to do that. A common practice in this quadrant here is specialization, which allows teams within the organization to focus on their bits of the problem space and excel at winning within them. Unfortunately, it is my experience that this practice also leads to more opportunities of misalignment. Specialization necessarily brings fractured awareness of the overall problem space, which decreases coherence — and eventually shifts the teams leftward.
In this quadrant, the challenges of coherence are manifesting a lot more, but the organization is slogging along, continuing to play to win. However, it is becoming less clear what the “winning” is about. Specialization focuses the definition inward, towards the team’s objectives, away from the objective of the larger organization. Specialization grows into polarization, with mutual distrust, blame, and cynicism as the forebearers of another shift. Friction and a sense of unease begins to spread across the team. Why is everything so hard? Why did it take us so long to do <blah>? Slowly but surely, the organization shifts downward.
Here, the coherence is low, and it’s mostly about staying alive. In a polarized environment where the life source (funding) keeps the units together, winning becomes about survival. Few are thinking long-term. Why would it matter? Tensions escalate to turf wars, threatening to tear the organization apart. And in some cases, they do. Yet, to continue our story, sometimes, there’s a unifying call that’s not like the others. There’s a leader, a cause, or an event that acts as a catalyst. I’ve seen it happen several times and honestly, if I knew the recipe, I’d be sitting pretty. But I don’t. All I know is that the battered organization bands together and begins to believe in something bigger, moving to the lower-right quadrant.
In this last quadrant of the story, it’s all about perseverance. It’s all about sticking with that bigger vision and grinding through the problem space, to learn to let go of the existential dread of playing not to lose and pop back up into playing to win.
In different organizations, these transitions happen at different severity. For some organizations, they feel like a mild flu, an annoyance that everyone can sense, but knows they’ll be okay. For some, the transitions are lethal. I am not yet sure why, but I am really curious to learn.