Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Management Lessons Learned from A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones is the first novel in A Song of Ice and Fire, a series of high fantasy novels by American author George R. R. Martin.

I rarely watch television, but for Christmas, my wife bought me Season 1 of  Game of Thrones, the HBO series inspired by the novels.  Don't worry, this blog post will not contain any spoilers.

Watching the characters jockey for power and influence reminded me of my experience navigating organizations over the course of my career.   Here are my top lessons learned from the series:

1.  Doing the right thing does not always work

I have strongly believed that the nice guy can finish first and that in the long term those with strength of moral character will triumph.    In Game of Thrones, some of the moral characters are outfoxed by manipulative, cruel, and deceptive characters.   One character notes "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die."     I have no plans to change my personal philosophy or approach to life, but it is interesting to reflect that some battles cannot be won with honor if your opponents are truly evil.

2.  There should be alignment of authority and responsibility.

One character notes "The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword."   It's easy for management to make decisions when someone else has to implement them.  Over the course of my career, I've been careful to "eat my own dog food" using the products I'm responsible for creating, making hard decisions then executing them, and taking responsibility for consequences that even indirectly result from my actions.   In organizations where there is a disconnect between authority and responsibility, chaos reigns if you lack authority to manage change in your areas of responsibility or if you have authority but are not responsible for your actions.

3.  You need to choose your goals and stick to them.

One of the characters is torn between honor and family.   He does not know whether to stay with his new colleagues (as he as sworn to do) or travel to aid his family in a time of war.   He struggles with the decision and for a time pursues neither goal.   Eventually he chooses honor and is "all in" with that goal, knowing that many others will assist his family and all will be well.

4.  Strategy matters.

In the series, an extremely wealthy family attempts to win a war by being better resourced.   Another family with fewer resources strategically outmaneuvers the wealthy family by building alliances and separating their forces into two contingents, using the element of surprise to achieve victory.     Good planning is just as important as good execution.

5.  You can't predict the future, but you can react to events around you to make the future.

One of the characters is a young and untested leader, willing to grow and make thoughtful decisions as she gains experience.   Events occur around her beyond her control.   She reacts to them calmly and in the best interests of others.  Eventually circumstances change and she seizes the opportunity to move beyond her formal authority, creating loyalty with the informal authority derived from her unique abilities.

We all grow over time and engage in own Game of Thrones at a micro level as we journey through our careers.   Many of the characters in Game of Thrones and in our workplaces are morally ambiguous.   I live each day knowing that I cannot control the behavior of others, only my reaction to it.  Guided by my values, I've been able to achieve little victories in the game of life.

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