There is no shortage of past inspiration that corporations have drawn from to look for to derive competitive advantage from their employees. From sports metaphors to improv classes, trust falls to circus classes there have been no shortage of “out of the box” attempts at skill building to improved employee and company performance.
And while there are definite advantages and lessons that can be applied to employees daily lives, I would argue that none provide the skill set(s) needed to continually stay ahead of the curve or to maintain competitive advantage over competitors. And companies are struggling. Many lament the fact that their leaders are just not strategic enough. Many complain that it’s hard to move leaders from rote process and “how we’ve always done it” even in the face of constant change.
I would further that argument by claiming that competitive video game veterans have the exact skill set that could be transferred into continual strategic advantage in any company.
That’s because the most competitive of gamers have studied and adapted to the games’ metagame (meta) to stay competitive for years. The top players have always adapted to each patch, each balancing move and every new found way to utilize elements in the game for the Most Effective Tactical Advantage (META).
In games, the meta is referring to the strongest set of strategies currently dominating in online and tournament play. Admittedly, this is an oversimplified definition, but whatever the flavor of answer to metagaming is, the common thread is that the meta game is separate from the main game as defined by the developers. Certain heroes or weapons or strategies of support and attack rise to the top and dominate in the most competitive ladders.
League of Legends, for example, has a meta-game of 1 person per lane, with a support player at bottom lane and a roaming player called the jungler. The champions suitable for each of these roles fluctuates over time, as abilities are patched, new champions are released, and new ways to play old champions are found. If one champion becomes popular, so do the champions that best exploit the popular champion’s weaknesses, and this further ripples outwards in a 126+ choice game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. All of these things comprise the “meta”, as they are not mechanics enforced by the game, but rather the players.
When enough players are doing this, you effectively change the play environment. The game will have evolved past its initial parameters. Unspoken rules and techniques give the edge in competition. Without prior knowledge of the metagame, you are at a serious disadvantage.
This is similar to the business landscape. There are certain “rules” we all learned in MBA classes. But the real winners tend to be the ones that transcend those rules and create a meta game within the larger context of business. “How business is done” does not cut it if your competitors have found new ways to use meta data to change the game and elevate the competitive nature of the industry. Playing the meta of anything is more akin to playing the players strategy (and countering) vs. tackling the game directly.
However, the real competitive advantage derived by competitive gamers is the constant changing nature of the game they play. They face changes in the game by developers to create balance. They face number crunchers and data scientists constantly looking for new ways to exploit a heroes strengths or weaknesses. They face a voracious onslaught of gaming strategies being tested and tried (maybe Marksmen don’t always have to go “bot,” or maybe it’s OK to let one player always get the last hit on the minion to level up faster, Mercy is no longer a must pick support, or splash damage heroes like Junkrat are only effective at lower tiers). It’s constantly changing.
In business, it’s just the same. Changes in technology, distribution, marketing, consumer behavior and consumption habits change daily. If you are still marketing the way you were 3 years ago, you’re losing. If you are trying to solve business problems with data from last year, you are already behind. And if you hear anyone in your organization claim that success was built on a never-changing set up operational policies and go-to-market strategies, its time to move on. The meta gamers in your industry are running circles around you. Don’t drop on the floating island where 2/3 of the lobby is dying off. Pick a town, clear it and run for ten minutes. If your competitors in your industry are bush camping, don’t go running and hopping through the open fields.
In moving forward, all teams in all organizations can benefit from the following:
1. Identify the meta. What’s working? What are the top players doing differently in your industry?
2. Assess your structure. How is your team built?
3. Identify the strengths and weakness vs. the current meta. Are the top players tanking up? How do you respond? How can you best counter a competitor that captured a new sales channel before you got there?
4. Build on core pieces and augment with flex pieces. What strengths can you build into your core that effectively dominate the current industry and what flex pieces can you build in to anticipate future meta changes? Choose carefully, like the 30 card Hearthstone decks, any particular archetype will have certain “must-have” auto includes that limit your flex spots to try new things.
5. Anticipate what will change the meta. This sounds like seeing into the future, but if you watch trends and get a few data points, educated guesses can pay off. The best thing here is to not brush off something that seems out of place. It’s best to stop and ask “why?”
6. Test and try new things. What if something new could be a more effective counter? Whether something simple like A/B testing or multivariate testing or larger R&D tests, it’s important to continue to stretch the boundaries and see if there is a new way to break through the clutter.
I don’t envision an hour a day where the whole company jumps into a Fortnite lobby. But playing the game within the game and really studying the meta shifts could have huge payoffs when it comes to strategically thinking about the competitive positioning of your company.