Imagine playing checkers with a friend. You’re red; he’s black. You’ve played against one another for years—winning some, losing some—and you know each other’s strategies pretty well. It’s a simple game, after all.
Midway through the game, something very wrong happens. Your friend moves one of his pieces sideways.
“Hey!” you say. “That’s not allowed! That’s not how the game is played!”
It’s obviously wrong to move your checker sideways. Why? Because the rules say so. Ignore those rules and this isn’t checkers anymore. It’s some other game that no one knows how to play.
You might think this is an absurd, obtuse anecdote but sideways checkers happens all the time. It’s something I learned from this week’s book about the phrase “the way we’ve always done it”. What do people really mean when they say that? To borrow from the author:
“‘That’s the way we’ve always done it,’ should not be taken as ‘I’m unwilling to change, even though you have made a good case for doing so’. Rather, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it’ is probably better understood as ‘This set of mixed strategies … is currently in a Nash Equilibrium. ‘… someone’s payoff is going to take a hit if we switch strategies and I’m concerned that someone is me.’”
This is such a fantastic insight. And whether it’s checkers or process improvement or performance evaluations, the fact is that tenured staff (i.e., people who have played office checkers a long time) rely on certain rules, certain strategies because that’s what the game allowed. Indeed, that’s what the game incentivized.
Over time, many iterations of the game (people penalized, people rewarded) lead everyone to settle into a nice equilibrium. The game becomes deeply understood and very predictable and everyone is fine. I know your strategies; you know mine. All territory is mapped and allocated. Then there is peace. Then there are “no more games”.
That state of equilibrium is what a lot of people want in the office. And to get it, they need clear rules, an understanding of how to play, and a clear path to get to the point of saying “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
If you change those rules (and you occasionally should), you’ll have to show why the new way is better. What’s the payoff? Who wins, who loses, and how do we get back to equilibrium?
These are questions we should answer but these aren’t the ones we’re asked. So the insight from the book really helps. Move the checker sideways. Shake things up. Change the game for the better because regular old checkers gets quite boring. And when the players (your staff) protest, just make sure everyone understands the new rules clearly enough. They can still play the game just as well as before. So long as they give it a chance.