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What I learned about people, commitment, and quality from playing Zynga’s Words with Friends

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Social Games

There has been a spate of recent IPO‘s in the social space.  One of these is Zynga.  Zynga creates social games.  Zynga makes money by selling virtual goods and through advertising.  The Zynga stock at IPO was $10.  At the time of this writing, Zynga is trading below its IPO price. Zynga’s IPO raised about $1 Billion dollars.

So what’s the attraction of social games?  Well, I surely understand it – intellectually.  But what is the experience of it?

I thought I’d give Zynga games a try.  Zynga’s Words with Friends seemed to be my speed.  I tracked down an expert scrabble player from my social network.  I asked if she ever tried Words with Friends.  Well, she did.  And so we decided to play a few of the social games from Zynga.

The Play

When we started playing Words with Friends I was making quick moves to move the game along – experiencing the game, as was my intention.  My opponent beat me and she beat me by a lot of points.  We played another games – she beat me again.  So now it was not about “experiencing social games’.  It became something else.

There was an asymmetry in the game.  She was giving me a good game with some spectacular words in multiple dimensions.  I was not returning the favor.  That is, I was not matching her commitment to a good game,  So I changed my effort, and my commitment, and the level of play.  What were once quick moves with little consideration turned into extended studies of the board, the discovery of a strategy for play including planning the next and perhaps subsequent moves, and choosing the best option to play considering the alternate moves and point scores.

The validation

I didn’t learn anything new as much as I validated, in a very clear way, what I already knew and what I’ve observed in many corporate environments for many years.

Folks who have made it through the 1,000+ pages of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged may remember this exchange with Rearden, the creator of the strongest steel – Rearden metal.

You have judged every brick within this place by its value to the goal of making steel. Have you been as strict about the goal which your work and your steel are serving? What do you wish to achieve by giving your life to the making of steel? By what standard of value do you judge your days? For instance, why did you spend ten years of exacting effort to produce Rearden Metal?”

Rearden looked away, the slight, slumping movement of his shoulders like a sigh of release and disappointment. “If you have to ask that, then you wouldn’t understand.”

“If I told you that I understand it, but you don’t—would you throw me out of here?”
“I should have thrown you out of here anyway—so go ahead, tell me what you mean.”
“Are you proud of the rail of the John Galt Line?”
“Yes.”
“Why?”
“Because it’s the best rail ever made.”
“Why did you make it?”
“In order to make money.”
“There were many easier ways to make money. Why did you choose the hardest?”
“You said it in your speech at Taggart’s wedding: in order to exchange my best effort for the best effort of others.”
“If that was your purpose, have you achieved it?”

“to exchange my best effort for the best effort of others.”

It’s interesting to observe teams.  The best teams develop a commitment to each other and this sort of commitment – “my best for your best”.  In the play of Words with Friends I surely got the idea that I was not doing my best to her best.  Of course, Words with Friends has some easy moves.  All you really need to do is form a legitimate word to send the game on its way.  But just forming any word will not win the game nor will it make the game interesting.  There is a direct analogy of this to teams of individuals working on projects.  Some give their best and some just do the least required to move the project along.  Those who do the least are often not embarrassed by their poor performance.

The Real Leadership Lessons from Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson wrote an excellent book on the life of Steve Jobs.  It was published shortly after the death of Jobs.  Before Isaacson’s book there was “The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs“.  The reality of this is that there are no “secrets” of Innovation.  It’s not about secrets, it’s about choices among options that are clearly visible. As regards the leadership style of Steve Jobs and what made Apple so successful you don’t need to be a genius.  The genius has already been accomplished and demonstrated to the tune of more than $300B in Apple’s market capitalization.  What you need to discern are the choices that Apple (Steve Jobs) made that positioned Apple for its amazing success

Isaacson says as much in the April 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review.  The lead-in to  the special article on Jobs’s Leadership style is this… “Six months after Jobs’s death, the author of this best-selling biography identifies the practices that every CEO can try to emulate

The article lists 14 practices.  One of them is… “Tolerate Only “A” Players”

Jobs was famously  impatient , petulant, and tough with the people around him.  But his treatment of people, though not laudable, emanated from his desire for perfection and his desire to work with only the best.  It was his way  of preventing what he called “the bozo explosion,” in which managers are so polite that mediocre people feel comfortable sticking around..  “I don’t think I run roughshod over people,” he said, “but if something sucks I tell people to their face.  It’s my job to be honest,”  When I pressed him on whether he could have gotten the same results while being nicer, he said perhaps so.  “But it’s not who I am,” he said,  “Maybe there’s a better way – a gentleman’s club where we all wear ties and speak in this Brahmin language and velvet code words – but I don’ t know that way, because I am middle class from California”

The Take

Why do some people do their best and why do some people just go through the motions?  In Atlas Shrugged, Rearden wanted to make money – but he did it in the hardest way possible.  Why?  It really wasn’t only about the money, it was about the commitment to the exchange, in order to exchange my best effort for the best effort of others.  Money comes along for the ride just as Steve Jobs stressed by placing a priority of products over profits.  If you make insanely great products the profits will follow.

Does “my best for your best” exist only in an idealistic world that does not exist in reality?  In a sense, you need to create and maintain such a world.  This gets to Jobs’s leadership practice of “Tolerate Only A Players” to guard against what he called the “bozo explosion” of mediocre people.  Hire the best people in the world and maintain the culture by the disciple of straight talk and confronting people.

Perhaps social games are a stealth way to measure commitment.  These games are essentially meaningless.  The best people do the best they can no matter what it is.  And if you ask why perhaps the response from Rearden in Atlas Shrugged should suffice.  Rearden looked away, the slight, slumping movement of his shoulders like a sigh of release and disappointment. “If you have to ask that, then you wouldn’t understand.”

As far as investing in Zynga and the potential for monetizing social games… The jury is still out.  But in testing the experience of social games I was glad to get yet another confirmation that there are folks out there that always do their best – no matter what it is – and they can still take me along for the ride.

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Written by frrl

May 5, 2012 at 8:16 am

2 Responses

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  1. I am 81 years old and i have been playing ‘words with friends’ for about 2 years…it keeps my mind active and keeps my thinking and memory very clear. I’ve played as many as 420 games in one week and scored as many as 13,000 points on the leader board. I have as many as 40 games going at one time with 40 great friends. Needless to say I enjoy the game very much.

    Robert Pickell

    May 4, 2015 at 6:11 pm

  2. Interesting comparison, I think a core set of users will always try to do their best and the rest are following the shiny object, or in this case downloading an app from the “Top 10” list. The majority of With Friends users are fleeting and their attention span is extremely limited. If Zynga is to profit long term they need to get very good at predicting mobile fads or continue to bleed money in acquisitions. Both solutions are quite a challenge.

    Jenks Friend

    June 1, 2012 at 3:56 pm


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