Games, craftsmanship and purpose in business

How do you look at your business? Is it a game or is it a craftsmanship? Never thought about it? Learn more about why you need to think about it.

Many of the metaphors used to describe the world of business are derived from games. Competition, the end-game, winning, losing, … are all terms that many businesses use to base their strategies on.
But is the game metaphor the right one to use in thinking about your business? Looking closer at games quickly reveals that:

  • Games are by their very nature finite; without an end in sight there’s no way to declare who has won the game;
  • Although many require a certain degree of creativity, the game rules and boundaries are very strict. The game is defined by its ruleset. The game is no longer the same game when the rules are changed;
  • Games are abstract endeavours; they have no real-life purpose.

These three fundamental characteristics of games do not apply to business at all. Businesses are not finite, or at least they are not meant to be. The rules of doing business change permanently. Doing business is far from an abstract endeavour.

Business as a craft

Why not think of business as a craft instead?
Craftsmen get better at what they do by learning and adopting best practices and techniques. These can be learned through a mentor, trial-and-error and ideally through a combination of both.

The craftsman applies intelligent skill and produces useful objects. There is no end-game, there is only the continuous improvement of skills and hence utility of the artefacts produced. Yes, there are people and circumstances that stand in the way of the craftsman, but there is no game to be won by those adversaries.

Using this analogy, one no longer thinks of one’s business as a finite undertaking with a clear and undisputable ending. Business is perceived as a perpetual process of skilful and intelligent delivery of beneficial outcomes to customers.

Looking at business as a craft instead of as a game also resolves the problem with changes in rules. To a craftsman, changes in rules have no fundamental impact; they are mere environmental changes. To survive, the craftsman needs to adapt to these changes. In a game, one would throw his hands in the air, quit or whine about unfairness. (Something businesses who think of themselves as mere players of a game tend to do too, unfortunately).

Companies who think of their business as a craft, design their strategies not to win imaginary games but to deliver superior value to customers.

One step further

Can we take this a step further and make the leap from craftsmanship to artistry?

The difference between artists and craftsmen is that the latter employ craftsmanship to deliver outcomes to their audiences. Artists however do what they do for the sake of themselves as well. They act out of purpose, a belief they want to explore and realize, but also struggle with.

Craftsmen are recognized for their greatness on a functional, rational level while successful artists also form an emotional bond with the kindred spirits amongst their audience. It’s a visceral thing, one that cannot be explained rationally, let alone be copied by others.

And that’s the crux of the matter: only businesses who act out of purpose can truly form a bond with their customers.

Businesses who see their customers (and other stakeholders for that matter) as mere pawns in a game will desperately try to emulate the greatness they witness in artist businesses. They will never be able to cultivate and expand, and remain locked in the static rules of their imaginary games.

Businesses who work like craftsmen can achieve greatness, but they need to prove themselves over and over again and work hard to keep on convincing their audiences of the features and benefits of their work.

The true artists amongst businesses – think of that wonderful era in Apple’s history for instance, when it believed in challenging the status-quo and acted accordingly – resonate with their audiences on levels that can only be described as deeply human: born out of a shared purpose. As Simon Sinek says:

People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.

Next time you draft up a strategy, try not to think as if you are competing in an imaginary game. Try to think like an artist instead.

Don't miss out

The Reference has its office in the heart of Manhattan.
“I want to wake up in that city that never sleeps, and find I'm king of the hill, top of the list, head of the heap” – Frank Sinatra