Every business in the past two years has had to reengineer its strategy to meet the challenges and demands of a world in lockdown and a changed customer. The playing field shifted completely.
The collective trauma experienced by business owners, their employees, customers; as well as the impact on family systems as work and school transferred home, had wider societal implications that are still being felt today. Not only was the rulebook thrown away, but we were not even sure what the game was!
Questions asked by us as a business in the aftermath of the crisis, led to deeper engagement with our team leaders and within our divisions. A global pandemic is an opportunity to create meaningful change – it may be to reduce prejudice; or increase cooperation around shared values; or a strategic realignment of divisions within a business.
South African labour laws allowed for a flexible approach when dealing with such shock and trauma; and a thorough understanding of the amended, temporary labour laws were in some cases, the difference between survival and collapse in a business.
In our business, implementing necessary, cost-cutting decisions has been incredibly hard for management and to this day, remain highly regrettable. But it was necessary to save our business, and we proceeded with as much care as we could.
In fact, empathy became our business ‘keyword’ for 2020: empathy for our colleagues, our clients, and our suppliers. They may look and sound normal, but they may not be entirely normal. We all had to think about what it is like to walk in their shoes.
During the past two years, some business was won, and some was lost, and the rules of engagement also changed. To make sense of it all, I spent time listening to podcasts and delving into the philosophical side of business. The world according to Brene Brown, Simon Sinek, James Carse, Tim Ferriss, Robert Greene, Steve Jobs and our own Paddy Upton, among others.
Play the game
Game theory is a fascinating subject, and I have shared various concepts with my colleagues. According to James Carse, there are two types of games: Infinite and Finite games: “In a finite game, there are known players, fixed rules and an agreed upon objective. The game is clearly defined with an end point and there are winners and losers. One cannot replay the game, it’s over when the referee calls it.
A simple example would be a game of soccer or rugby. In an infinite game, there are known and unknown players. The objective is to keep the game in play and the rules are changeable. All parties are working to keep the game in play. There are no winners or losers, but some drop out of the game due to a lack of will or resources.”
A simple case study would be the Vietnam war – the Americans were playing to win whereas the Vietnamese were fighting for their lives. On the scorecard, the Americans were winning the battles, but the Vietnamese won the war. To bring the content into context, and as discussed with my colleagues, we are not in the finite game. Our business has spent 17 years in the infinite game.
In our business, we have sometimes been fortunate enough to win various, amazing RFPs and hugely rewarding ad campaigns. But sometimes we have lost out on certain RFP’s, and on certain ad campaigns that we were convinced were in the bag.
We should all come to understand, philosophically, that our true competitor is ourselves. During this crisis, I reminded our team that we have had the courage to walk away from the terms and conditions that certain clients wanted us to entertain. In certain cases, winning market share to feed our ego at any cost, often at great risk to the successful parts of our business, should never be an option. The wrong business can drain all your positive energy, leaving it spent for the wonderful opportunities that may already be in place or around the corner.
The game of business has existed longer and will outlast all companies. There is no winning in the game of business. Criteria for being number one in business, or being the winner, is massively biased as the rules are not in place. Companies use this language, but we can skew the index to make it work for ourselves. There is no winning as there is no end.
Our key learnings
This is what we learnt: the compounded effect of focusing our team’s positive energy on the right kind of clients and business, will far outweigh holding on to the wrong business. Instead, we should all spend our time working on other things: making sure that internal business culture is better than last year; that the leadership team are better equipped than the year before; that our approach to innovation is discussed and understood internally; and that our new business strategy is more efficient.
What is so important, is that all new staff members must be assessed and mentored regularly to give them every chance to contribute and thrive in the business. If you have weak links, they must not be tolerated or overlooked, performance management is critical. We are in competition within ourselves.
If your business is still in play; then continue to play the game and continue to focus on how you can play the game better. Don’t dwell on the uncontrollable – some clients will never be satisfied. The question you need to ask is, do you really want to work with those clients?
Unrealistic clients can demotivate your staff and may ultimately erode your margins. In fact, they may prefer the finite game. They may always want to be the winner. There are better, more pleasant clients that will make your business far healthier, appreciate your contribution and enable you to reach better heights together.
Control the controllable and be clear on what game it is that your company is playing in, to enjoy the game for the love of it.
Dave Mckenzie is the founder and CEO of one of South Africa’s most progressive media companies. He is a thought leader in the alternative and OOH media industry in South Africa. BOO! has continued to evolve and innovate by introducing pioneering media platforms into the SA media landscape. As a CEO, McKenzie has navigated being acquired by a listed company, managed businesses within the larger group, which then de-listed, before Dave purchased the business back. Dave’s initial background in the publishing industry and now in OOH has seen a merging of the two disciplines. BOO! has pioneered and manage, amongst other media, powerful new digital content channels within the university, business class lounge, aviation and shopping mall sectors.