Playing the Big Game

Some years ago I had a realization: There are people who play small and people who play big and I was a small game player. During my professional live I’ve worked hard on my skills, so it was not a skill problem. And I’ve always invested time in things that would pay off later, so it was no problem of urgent vs. important vs. significant. It was just that all the progress I made felt somewhat limited.

My thought process about big and small game started with a feeling. At the beginning there was no “concept”. But I started to continually reflect about whether the decisions that I were about to make where big or small game and then decided to go with the option that “felt” more like big game.

But of course after a lot of thinking, I’ve identified several key indicators to distinguish big game vs. small game thinking.

Expectation Value vs. Loss Probability

When you want to play big game, you have to take more risk than the usual person does. Most people choose options according to their loss probability: How likely the option will lead to a loss. Especially options that have a loss probability higher than 50% are options that most people will be reluctant to choose.

While the loss probability is a valid KPI for evaluating an option, much more important is the expectation value. If you continually choose the options with the highest EV you will eventually end up in a better place.

Balancing Risk vs. Avoiding Risk

This is an addition to the previous section. It’s about balancing your risk portfolio in a way that you are not vulnerable to losing streaks.

What I mean is, when you take more risk, you will also lose more often. The benefit of the expectation value needs a large sample size. Never take to many risks at once and be prepared to lose most of the “bets” you make.

To be clear: I’m not talking about financial decisions here. But managers can learn something from the financial industry here.

Being Effective vs. Being Perfect

Guilty. Still. Not that I’m perfect. Far from that. But I still strive to be. But that’s a stupid endeavor. So currently I try to force myself to evaluate my effectiveness more than I evaluate my distance from perfection (which is huge).

A simple mind-trick helps: I try to be perfect in my neglection of perfectionism.

Asking “What should be done?” vs. Asking “What should I do?”

This was natural for me, so I did not have to learn it. Maybe it’s “the leadership attitude”. But I know lots of people who have a hard time with that. A few tips:

  • Take yourself out of the equation. Look at the situation from an objective viewpoint.
  • Ask: “What would the best leader of the world do?”
  • Also imagine an “ideal world” in your environment. How would it look like and what would need to be done in order to create it.

Creating Facts vs. Convincing with Arguments

Endless Discussions about what are good and what are bad solutions are usually not very productive, especially when there are no objective criteria to evaluate options. But there is another problem. Most people don’t decide rationally. They decide emotionally. So arguments won’t do the trick.

You might feel reluctant to simply go ahead and create facts, because it is kind of anti-social. Nobody said playing big is a soft line approach.

Investing Time vs. Spending Time

We’ve had that before. See my blog post about how to invest your time properly.

Value Based Rewards vs. Cost Based Rewards

Try not to get rewards based on the time you spend or the marginal costs of your solution. Try to get rewards based on the value you are producing. Say the service of your company has marginal costs of 10 € and creates a value of 100 € for your customer. When you set the reward according to your costs you would probably charge 12-15 €. But then you are leaving 85 € of the created value for the customer. Why not charge 90 € (or at least 55 €).

Be aware of Opportunity Costs

When new suggestions or options pop up, people usually only consider the (assumed) ROI. When the assumed ROI is positive, then the suggestion is evaluated as a “good suggestion”. But that leaves out that there might be other things you could do, that have an even higher ROI. Don’t be concerned with too many minor improvements.

A last Insight

Not everybody in a team can play big game. And that’s not a statement about skill or talent. It’s a statement about practicality. You have to have small game players who execute the big game moves. Somebody has to play small game eventually.


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