Breaking The Wheel

A image of Marie Curie in an mobile x-ray unit

5 Vital Business Principles in the Form of Pithy Quotes

I. Love. Aphorisms. Sure some are pure hogwash. But the really good ones convey a lot of truth in a small space. In this post, I gathered 5 of my favorite quotes, and explain how they relate to effective management.

Featured Image: Marie Curie driving a mobile x-ray vehicle. Source: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6266984

1. “For there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so” -Hamlet, from the play of the same name, Act 2, Scene 2

One of the easiest management traps to fall into is the notion that choices are good or bad. Sure, you can certainly find good/bad dynamics – making money is good, losing money is bad. But most decisions are not absolutes, they only take on the severity of a good/bad dynamic because we assign that dynamic to them.

Most decisions are about trade-offs, not binary outcomes. Speed or accuracy? Accuracy or precision? Precision or cost savings? Cost savings or productivity? Productivity or work force preservation? None of those options is inherently good or bad, nor are any of them mutually exclusive. You can have a balance point between speed and accuracy, or between savings and productivity.

So the way to view these decisions is not through the lens of good/bad, but from the perspective of priorities and values. Do your priorities and values emphasize speed or accuracy? Do they emphasize productivity or work force preservation? What balance point between those attributes best aligns with your priorities and values.

Examples Always Help…

To put this notion in a less abstract setting, let’s say you’re approaching a milestone, and feature development is behind schedule. The only way to hit the milestone is to burn the midnight oil and start crunching.

If you look at this from a good/bad perspective, it might seem that the only choice is to crunch – missing a milestone is bad, after all.

But what about if you view the decision point in terms of trade-offs? If you maintain the current speed of development, you will deliver less, but you will have a higher degree of certainty about what you can deliver and at what level of quality. Or, if you crunch, you can deliver more, but you are uncertain as to whether you can deliver everything, and the rush job will likely mean quality will take a hit.

Neither choice is 100% good or 100% bad. They’re trade-offs: being certain versus being aggressive. So which trade-off – or what balance point between the trade-offs – best aligns with your priorities and values, and those of your stakeholders?

When you view these kinds of decisions as trade-offs, it can be much easier make decisions dispassionately.

2. “People don’t want a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter inch hole.” -Theodore Levitt, Harvard Business School Economist

Don’t conflate the product and the solution. The former is what consumers actually care about. The more you focus on the solution, the more you have to convince consumers that it actually solves a problem that they have, or that they actually have the problem that it solves.

What problem do we solve for gamers? A desire for accomplishment, or connection through online communities, or empowerment. The need for challenge or for competition. Or just plain old, simple boredom.

Perhaps that can all be filed under “No shit, Sherlock”. Fair enough. But how many games have you played that weren’t fun because they seemingly crawled up their own ass of self-importance? Or jammed micro-transactions down your throat without first giving you a compelling reason to pay? Or felt content to merely rehash the mechanics of prior, successful games without offering any new ideas?

Yes, it’s a creative industry. No, we shouldn’t design by focus group or survey. But neither should we forget that, at the end of the day, we’re going to ask other human beings to pay us for our efforts.  And if we don’t solve a problem for them, why should they give us money? Or evangelize on our behalf?

3. “In God we trust. Everyone else must bring data” – W. Edwards Demming, Engineer, Professor, and Consultant

“I don’t need data, I trust my gut” is the battle cry of someone too lazy, or too fearful of dis-confirming information, to gather measurements. It sounds bold and decisive, but in reality it’s just the blind leading the blind.

Don’t just say “Productivity is high”, measure your throughput. Don’t just say “Our UX is easy to understand”, put a build in gamers’ hands and see what they do. Don’t just say “Morale at the studio is high”, run an employee satisfaction survey. The information you actually gather will tell you much more that your gut ever will.

Your gut has a place, but it’s a compliment to – not a substitute for – data. Your gut is for interpreting data, making urgent decisions when data aren’t available, or making a call when the data are inconclusive.

Your gut is a wonderful source of intuition. But a source of data it is not.

4. “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” – Marie Curie, Physicist and Nobel Prize Recipient

I was frightened when I thought my mother was ill. When I learned that she had a terminal disease, I was no longer frightened by the potential of disease, but frightened by what life would be like without her. And when she passed, so did my fear. I mourned, of course. I felt loss. But I was no longer afraid.

I was frightened when I thought I would night be laid off by Disney. How will I provide for my family? How will I find another job as good as the one I have? Will my career ever recover? But once it happened, it simply was. And I could focus on looking for new work.

Many things in life are frightening in advance, and quickly become the norm once we understand the impact. We often avoid or dismiss dis-confirming information, information that tells us we’re on the wrong path or that we could be doing better. We put off going to the doctor, or ignore the lackluster feedback about our games. We fear the implications of such information because, if that information is the truth, then the truth brings change. And change brings the unknown.

But accepting that new truth means you can understand it. By embracing what is – what actually is – you adapt to it.

Even if it means a worst case scenario – a game must be shuttered, or some people need to be laid off, or your studio will close – you can stop squandering your energy fearing that contingency and focus on making the best of it.

5. “He who defends everything defends nothing.” – Frederick the Great, King of Prussia

There are multiple variants of this sentiment. If everyone is your customer, no one is your customer. The surest route to failure is trying to please everyone. It all boils down to the same notion: being everywhere and doing everything isn’t a strategy. It’s indecision.

I wrote about his notion at length in my post about strategic design. But the gist of it is that strategy – in war, marketing, or public relations – is about making a choice, and then aligning your resources to support that choice.

By extension, strategy is also about what you choose not to do. Good product design is about investing in the features your target audience wants, and eliminating features your audience doesn’t care about, even if those features might appeal to people outside of your target.

If you’ve made your game for everybody, than you haven’t made a game for anybody. Fence riding doesn’t inspire passion, it triggers indifference. And indifference will kill a product faster than hatred every will. But if you can get a cadre of people, even a small one, to be passionate about your game, they will evangelize for you, and draw in people who are outside the target market (like Dark Souls did).


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  1. Pingback: Bottlenecks and Hindsight: Why Auteurs Make Horrible Economists

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