The businesspeople you see using digital assistants on airplanes probably aren't doing work. They're playing games. But the games they play are teaching them valuable business lessons. Right?
A recent New York Times article deplored the uncouthness of air travelers and waxed nostalgic for the days when passengers practiced their best company manners. Personally, I think the problem is due less to a decline in civility than to a response to environment. Soulless terminals and sardine-can planes produce pockets of anonymity in which people instinctively relax their public selves. They slouch. They read articles about Drew Barrymore. They loudly discuss private matters.
By observing these unguarded moments, you can learn a few things.
For example, over the past few years airports and planes have grown positively bushy with personal digital assistants, used by important businesspeople performing important business tasks. Or so I had always assumed. But glancing at the screens of stylus-wielding seatmates, I have found not calendars, not to-do lists, not notes for presentations to the board, but games. The discovery floored me.
I could think of just one explanation for the phenomenon: Games must teach valuable business lessons. But what kinds of lessons? Seeking illumination, I called David Novak, alliance relations manager of gaming, entertainment, education, and retail solutions for 3Com's Palm organizer.
I knew at once that Dave and I were on the same wavelength by the way he referred to game software as a "solution." But when he explained that executives play games to "find relief from their hectic schedules," my spirits sank. Hearing the disappointment in my voice, Dave hastily suggested that some executives might play chess because it sharpens their strategizing skills.
Chess is a little better, but it lacks subtlety. Then Dave, clearly thinking it a long shot, mentioned Dragon Bane, a Tolkienesque game in which players assemble a band of warriors based on their wisdom, strength, and dexterity, and go forth to battle monsters. Could that, he hazarded, teach team building? Yes! Sunlight broke through the clouds!
Encouraged, Dave looked for more examples by scrolling through a list of the top 50 applications on the Web site palmpilotgear.com. I don't have room here to describe all our findings, but the following are representative:
Froggy: A version of the game Frogger in which a small amphibian attempts to cross a highway without being crushed by huge trucks. Skills taught: agility; the ability to retrench without losing ground. Perfect for entrepreneurs entering mature markets.
Invaders: Players fire missiles at endless rows of aliens as they drop from the sky. Skills taught: the ability to identify and counter emerging threats. Perfect for CEOs of companies beset by new forms of competition, such as those created by the Internet.
Blocks: A Tetris-like game in which players juggle falling shapes in an attempt to make them fit into a growing wall. Skills taught: building a seamless organization from diverse components. Perfect for managers involved in reengineering projects.
Go to Jail: A Monopoly-like property game. Skills taught: capital investing and corporate ethics. Perfect for real estate developers and vice-presidents of legal affairs.
By the time we were through, Dave was jazzed at having found an unexpected significance to his product domain. And I was thrilled that my suspicions had proved correct. Businesspeople are on the road more than ever, as this issue's "Mobile Nation" cover package attests, and anything that can make those in-transit hours more productive is a godsend. On my next flight I'll be on the lookout for additional management secrets of the traveling classes. Who knows? There may be more to Drew Barrymore than meets the eye.
Do you find business lessons in strange places? Tell me about them.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan