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STRATEGY

Get in the Game and You'll Learn Something

Here's how games hone one entrepreneur's strategy skills.
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Matthew Calkins stores his leadership development tools in his basement. He owns more than a thousand, many still wrapped in plastic. He takes them out only once a month. But they have helped him build his company, Appian, into a leading provider of business-process-management software, with 220 employees and more than $70 million in revenue.

"Much about the way I lead this organization, I've internalized from playing board games," says Calkins. "Games can be proxies for so many situations. That's great preparation for running a company."

Games force players to choose which balls to keep their eyes on. And gaming is a whetstone for sharpening strategy. 

Calkins has been an avid gamer since age 3, when he begged his mother for a copy of Game of the States because some older kids wouldn't let him play. He graduated to strategy games depicting wars and other historical events and has since published two games of his own.

Between fighting the Battle of Midway and amassing influence in the Roman Senate, Calkins found time to launch Appian in 1999, at 26. Based in Reston, Virginia, Appian has customers that include Amazon, the New York Federal Reserve, and the U.S. Army, which uses Appian's software to run what has been called the world's largest intranet.

Calkins stresses that he doesn't think of business as a game but rather as a series of challenges, each with unique variables that may respond very differently to the same tactics. So he doesn't play games over and over, honing his skills as chess masters do.Rather, Calkins plays each game just once.

"I take a game I've never played and read the rules to a group of people that have also never played it, and we try to grapple with the system fresh," he says. "Since we've never encountered an experience exactly like this one, we have to adapt to what's new in it." Game night chez Calkins is a monthly event, with three games rolled out over the course of a few hours.

For example, Calkins might sit down with a friend for a bout of Napoleon. In that game, he will maneuver the little emperor and his forces around the board, looking for opportunities to take out either the British or Prussian army before the two combine to become unstoppable. Without knowing the strength or speed of opposing units, Napoleon must calculate where to strike and how. It's about picking the right battles, a vital strategic skill. "Napoleon can win any battle he chooses, but he can't win them all," says Calkins.

The chief lesson gaming teaches business leaders is where to focus, Calkins explains. Typically, he says, leaders focus on outputs. You know that you've lost a sale but not that you are in the process of losing it. Many poor decisions can trip you up: trusting the wrong person, saying the wrong thing, ignoring a crucial pain point.

Games give players a feel for the quality of their inputs, allowing them to quickly change tactics. "With games, you get feedback on whether what you just did was effective or ineffective," says Calkins. "So I have developed very good early-warning detection. When I am pursuing a client, for example, I can tell quite soon when things are on the wrong track."

Calkins also monitors his inputs while working. At the end of every meeting, for example, he mentally scores his performance on a scale of 1 to 5. He has also scored the quality of his emails. For an entire year, he tracked every half-hour of his time, writing down what he did and what purpose it served. By piling up small achievements, Calkins believes, he maximizes his chances of scoring major victories.

Games also force players to choose which balls to keep their eyes on. "Because so much is happening at the same time, you have to identify and track the essential," says Calkins. And, of course, gaming is a whetstone for sharpening strategy. "When I sit down at a game, I think, In this situation, victory will be derived from what intermediary state?" says Calkins. "Then I direct my strategy to accomplish that intermediary state."

He does the same thing in business. When he created Appian's annual sales plan, for example, Calkins identified large follow-on deals as the greatest opportunity and successful first-time deployments as the required intermediary state. Consequently, he made 100 percent of his consulting department's bonuses dependent on serving new customers so well that they buy additional Appian software.

Calkins is as successful at gaming as he is at business. Last year, he finished in the top five out of 1,500 contestants at the World Boardgaming Championship. Coincidentally, the leader of his primary competitor, a public company called Pegasystems, is also an accomplished gamer. Pegasystems CEO Alan Trefler tied for first place at the 1975 World Open chess tournament. "I should set that up," Calkins replies when asked whether the two CEOs have met over a game. "The problem is we would never agree on what to play."

IMAGE: hellosputnik/Flickr
From the June 2013 issue of Inc. magazine

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

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.




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