Playing Positive-Sum Games

August 27, 2020

The world of business is often framed around its competitive dynamics and/or negative impacts on society, and for good reason. Conflict and negativity drives traffic and interest, so it’s no surprise that this world is framed this way. Competition is of course a key part of the business world and corporations historically (and currently) are partially (or largely) complicit in creating some of humanity’s biggest problems, from climate change to income inequality.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. At its core, I see business as a way to organize people and resources around a cause to to build a system that advances that cause in a sustainable, exponential way. Business uses these resources and incentive systems as a means to an end to create more from less. This is what drew me to business - the ability to create something more than the sum of its parts.

In business parlance, this idea has a name that has become such a loaded term that it has lost all meaning and significance: creating value. The world of corporate finance has co-opted this term to the degree that I can’t take the concept seriously any more - the term “value” has become so narrowly associated with financial gain, often for the top 1%, that it sounds disingenuous to me even from the most well-meaning writer or speaker.

Meanwhile, competitive dynamics frame many industries as “zero-sum games” where there are winners and losers (and with the “value creation” framework applied, it’s a narrow definition of winning and losing). While there are definitely industries where competition is fierce, I’ve never been attracted to that world. Why spend your time fending off the competition, especially if your goals are the same? Why not focus on co-existing and working towards a greater goal?

For all the negativity in the world today, there’s a lot of good that can come from business when “creating value” is less narrowly defined and competition is viewed as a positive-sum game - it’s possible for everyone to “win”. But to take this path, you have to start with a mission, a mission that’s not simply about making money or dominating the market. As a mission-driven business, suddenly you have a great incentive to build a strong relationship with your “competition”, as they often have similar goals and there are some aspects of these goals (such as advocating for policy changes) that you can work on together.

I’ve always been drawn to positive-sum games. Building relationships with other industry players has been one the great privileges of working in climate-tech. Working on solving this challenge can be overwhelming at times, but I find great solidarity in the closest of competitors, as we’re working towards the same goal.

I’d encourage you to look for positive-sum games in your industry/profession - it’s more rewarding and simply more fun.

Thanks to Inky for reading drafts of this piece.