Playing the Game of Business

How thinking about business as a great game may improve your knowledge of business and may even help you enjoy it more

July 15, 2015
Great game of business, American football game

If you’re like me, you’re willing to spend a Sunday afternoon watching a football game but not a rugby match. They’re similar games, but we enjoy watching one and not the other. Why is that?

Personal interests aside, I believe the answer may be tied to how well we understand the game. We grew up around football. Even if we didn’t play or we watched only occasionally, we know the rules and we understand how the scoring system works. We know what the quarterback’s role is, and we know what an offside penalty is for. Because we understand the game, even in a rudimentary way, we are more likely to enjoy watching it being played.

The Greatest Game

Thomas J. Watson, former CEO of IBM, once said, “Business is a game, the greatest game in the world if you know how to play it.” Whether you agree or not, thinking about business as a great game may improve your knowledge of business and maybe even help you enjoy it more.

There are some interesting parallels between business and games. Games are played within a prescribed area, just as business takes place in a market or sales territory. In both games and business there are competitors, and there are winners and losers. And in both games and business, there are rules you need to understand just to be able to participate, and there are advanced skills you must master to succeed.

For example, whenever I play golf with a skilled player, they always remember the score on each hole, both their own and mine; I don’t. They also know which club to use to achieve the best results in a given situation; I usually grab a club that is within a two- or three-club range of the ideal.

I find a similar dynamic in business. When I ask a great business leader about sales figures or cost per lead, they generally know the number off the top of their head. A weaker business leader needs to retrieve the number from a co-worker or a report. In some cases, that leader may not even track the number.

If I ask a great business leader to name three keys to success, they have no trouble finding the answer because they make these principles part of their daily routine. Most importantly, when I ask great leaders if they are having fun, the answer is an enthusiastic “Yes,” often accompanied by a statement of appreciation for the opportunities that the game of business has given them.

Rules of Play

Here are five keys to making the game of business more enjoyable.

1. Know the basics. Master the fundamentals—the “blocking and tackling”—before you get in too deep. Learn everything you can about the three most important elements of the remodeling business: leads, sales, and production. Try to achieve not only good results, but predictable results.

2. Know the numbers. Great coaches don’t change strategy every time they fall behind in the score. They know how much time is on the clock, the number of time-outs they and their opponent have left, and other critical factors that can influence the outcome. Similarly, a great business leader doesn’t prematurely change strategy. For example, he may not adjust for low first-quarter sales numbers because he knows that most of his company’s sales come in the second quarter. Understanding your company’s numbers enables you to make better decisions.

3. Know your plan. Most professional sports teams spend much more time planning and practicing than they do actually playing the game. Preparation is equally important in business. If you’re succeeding without a plan, it doesn’t mean you have a special skill; it just means you’re lucky.

4. Know your talent. It’s hard to win without talented players. I see some well-intentioned business leaders who want to achieve top-line sales growth, but they don’t have the right personnel in place. I also see great sales talent in businesses that lack the sales management skills needed to effectively grow that talent. Take inventory of your team, then decide which positions are lacking the talent you need to achieve your goals.

5. Know yourself. This should have been listed first, even before you chose to play in this game called business. A baseball player may be a great hitter but be prone to fielding errors; a great football player may be a great runner but a poor blocker. Similarly, some business leaders thrive doing smaller short-term projects while others hit their stride on larger, longer-term jobs. Some may earn strong profits remodeling kitchens but lose money building decks. Match your business model to your disposition and you will find your sweet spot.

Business is not “just a game”—it’s your livelihood. You owe it to yourself and your team to learn to be a better player. PR


Mark Richardson, CR, is an author, columnist, and business growth strategist. He authored the best-selling book, How Fit Is Your Business? as well as his latest book, Fit to Grow. He can be reached at or 301.275.0208.


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