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The Game that Destroys Innovation -- Part II: Killing Off the Game

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In Part I, I gave a few examples of the Game that is played in most every company to a greater or lesser extent.  It is an insidious game of unwritten rules that forces people to play in a sandbox of pretense so that everyone can claim to be doing the right thing.  Any attempt to play by the "official" rules of the office (that is, the ones involving integrity, honesty, fairness, legality, etc.) can lead to severe penalties, and failing to play the Game correctly, despite not knowing the rules or being told the rules, can have similarly dire consequences.  I discussed how the Game utterly destroys innovation, and the company along with it, and here I will provide an overview of how to end the Game.

The biggest problem with the Game is that its first unspoken dictum matches the first two rules of Fight Club: You do not talk about the Game.  There are several reasons for this, the most important of which is that actually discussing the Game can lead to a lawsuit.  The Game conceals discriminatory practices, jobs that were done shoddily if they were done at all, lies and half-truths knowingly told to stakeholders, webs of blame designed to cover people's...actions (and egos), and so much more that can be a liability to the company.  This is precisely why speaking up can cause so much damage, and why anyone who attempts to speak up faces such dire consequences.  In most companies with a Game, there is enough cleverness to bribe the people who are fired to keep them silent (better known as a "severance package").  Moreover, since the individual actions in the Game are often far removed from the consequences, companies can comfortably deny that anything bad is happening, even as they wonder why they are seeing a slow decline in innovation, work/product/service quality, employee engagement, retention, and company loyalty.

Hidden in those problems, however, is the solution!

First, if there is a notable decline in any of the aforementioned, or more people are using sick/vacation days than usual, or there seems to be a spate of insubordination, factionalizing, gossip, or higher stress, do one important thing: check the calendar.  There might be some major event that happened in the company.  If nothing significant has happened (or potentially even if it did), you likely have a case of the Game.

Second, investigate the resignations and terminations that occurred in the last 6-12 months.  Is it a large number?  Are there any patterns?  Are there plausible reasons underpinning these departures?  Might there be other reasons why people left the company that weren't stated?  Is there any information in the exit interview?  It may be helpful to speak to that person's coworkers, subordinates, and managers, to get as clear of a picture as possible as to why things went south.

Third, have someone from outside the company speak with employees under the following conditions (provided in writing): Immunity from any fallout, complete anonymity and confidentiality, and freedom from any further response to what is said.  In return, the employee provides honest and accurate information without fear of retaliation, indemnifies the company against any legal action by the employee (otherwise, the company might not want to hear it), and may not disclose or discuss the contents of the meeting for any reason without explicit prior authorization.  The consultant will form a picture of what is going on in the company, where the Game is alive and thriving, and in what form the Game is being played, and make a general presentation to HR and the C-Suite that highlights these points while maintaining proper levels of confidentiality.

The idea behind all of this is to ascertain the unwritten rules of the Game, and why they exist.  What is the company's exact motive for playing the Game?  What happens if all of the pretense shatters and everything is revealed?  (And, in no way should this expose or punish those who play or propagate the Game -- any threat of that will destroy any attempt to ferret out and extinguish the Game.)

In general, it will be up to the company to reveal the pretenses, take responsibility, and incur any costs.  Honesty is the best policy here, but there must be amnesty and anonymity for all offenders, otherwise the Game will reappear.  The changes in policy need to start with the C-Suite, and be hand-delivered throughout the company.  The C-Team needs to be involved in every step: meeting with all of the relevant stakeholders, laying bare the issues, determining how costs and reparations will be covered, and describing the culture that must be built.  Having some outside help to follow up with employees, and/or having a designated member of HR or the C-Suite on hand to hear anonymous concerns, can facilitate the process.

It is important to remember, though, that this is recovery from a disaster.  Like a colony of termites, the Game eats away at the infrastructure of the company, chipping away even pieces of the core culture.  Rebuilding takes investments of time, effort, and money, but it's better than going down on a slowly sinking ship!

(Stay tuned for Part III: A Better Game)

Orin C. Davis is a positive psychology researcher and organizational consultant who focuses on enabling people to do and be their best.  His consulting work focuses on maximizing human capital and making workplaces great places to work, and his research focuses on self-actualization, flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring. Dr. Davis is the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory and the Chief Science Officer of Self Spark. (@DrOrinDavis)

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