Tetris – The Master Class in Strategic Planning That We All Somehow Completely Overlooked
A fun nostalgic multi part series..
Confession: I consider myself somewhat of an idiot savant when it comes to 2 things in life (both of which happen to be video games from my childhood): Tetris and NHL ’94 (SNES). Both will have their glorious day in the sun as a blog post – but today I’d like to focus on Tetris! I have long argued with my peers that Tetris is the best video game of not just our childhood or generation, but of all time (hear me out). Think about it for just a second:
- The game went viral before “viral” was even a thing
- Simple concept / execution yet challenging game. Hard combination to create.
- The game literally can’t be beat. The better you get the faster / harder it gets. There is no end. Hence why it’s still a great game 30+ years later
The last bullet is why Tetris has become a muse for my view of how companies should operate. As companies scale, it’s important that they can react faster & with high rates of precision because the challenges that they face will also scale. Operationally the company must get so efficient that they can operate ahead of fast moving industry trends & changes over time.
Now that we’ve established that Tetris is the best video game of all time (fodder for comments section shenanigans 😉 ) – I’d like to deep dive into how this wonderful game has taught me multiple career lessons. For this week’s segment I’d like to key in on Strategic Planning.
What exactly IS strategic planning – Just another corporate buzz word that nobody actually does?? No – having a strategic plan (or lack thereof) in my opinion will make / break your organization’s success in both the near and the long term future. Let’s start this conversation by defining a Strategic Plan:
“Strategic Planning is an organization‘s process of defining its strategy, or direction, and making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy.”
- Vision for the future: Where are we trying to go and why?
- Goals: How are we planning to get there?
- Iterative Approach: Reevaluation of the plan as the world market shifts in real time?
One of the hardest things about strategic planning is simply where to start implementing your solution. This often starts with organizational and operational infrastructure. Are the teams aligned under the correct leaders to execute against strategic vision / goals? Operationally do we have the right process in place to continue supporting current business while executing on the strategic growth path?
Let’s revisit our Tetris example:
1. Creating A Solid Foundation
I have this motto derived from Tetris called “Nothing but solid builds”. It could be renamed “Solid Foundations” because that’s essentially what it means. Building the infrastructure from day one that supports a long term strategic goal. It’s an all encompassing mindset where one must consider:
- Personnel and time resources
- Prioritization (focus)
In the game of Tetris, it’s building from the ground up with no horizontal gaps between blocks. Absolutely none! This mindset makes it easy to have both sustained success and large windfalls that comes in (what seems like) suddenly. In a two player match these windfalls happens in mere seconds. Suddenly the game is making noises and half of your opponent’s screen just filled up with blocks rendering their ability to respond virtually impossible. What seems sudden has been building for the last 5 minutes (5 mins in Tetris game can equate to years in real life strategic planning). I keep myself disciplined in this regard by always reminding myself that “Level 1 is easy, Level 10 not so much”. If one can’t operate at level 1 with 100% perfection, then one will never advance to level 10 or beyond.
2. Managing A Backlog Of Work (Small Tedious Task / Small Fast Wins)
For team moral and operational sustainability, consistently knocking out the low hanging fruit while simultaneously chipping away at long term strategic goals is a constant balancing act. Teams need to feel the satisfaction of “small victories” week to week. That being said, pitfalls of strategic growth are the lack of focus towards long term vision / goals. Prioritization of work is hyper critical in this balancing act. Its important that all levels of leadership are aligned on shared strategic visions and are evaluating the priorities of teams on a ~ 2 week cadence to ensure that teams are spending resources (time, money, people) on the most valuable work. This is also critical to delivering that value within expected timelines. Without this frequency of revisiting the never ending backlog of work, its easy for teams to lose sight of key delivery dates (which drives value and prioritization). The beautiful thing about Tetris is that as the player, you own sole control of planning, prioritization, & execution. For the vast majority of us, our work at our jobs are not as siloed and require multiple teams to complete task. For this purpose it’s important that an established decision maker is in place. Someone who ultimately owns the deliverable, and can make quick decisions regarding the scope of the deliverable, features, and priorities for teams to work on. This role is often referred to as a Product Owner. Product Owners ensure that work is queued up for the team to work on (eliminating wasted time), make real time decisions based on newly uncovered information, and act as a one stop shop for all questions related to said product.
3. Leaving Options For The Unknowns (aka Managing Risk)When a company decides to take on a new strategic vision (especially if the change is expected to happen over multiple years), the amount of risk is high especially in the early stages of the project as the amount of ambiguity is also high. It’s important that there are the right players in place as well as operational practices to manage the inevitable risk and issues that will arise on the journey of implementing an organizational change. Let’s revisit Tetris for a great example that we can all relate to Why Experience matters: I mentioned earlier that it’s important to have the right players in place. This is critical because their experiences play a major role in times of crisis. They understand the critical path and success factors. They also have a keen sense of what matters, when to panic, and when not to.
3 Ways That Experience Will Drive Strategic Vision:Proactive Management of Risk Did you know that in the game of Tetris, each of the pieces have names !?!??! More importantly – when you played this AMAZING GAME in your youth, did you memorize all of the pieces? Why not – there are literally only 7 of them. What that means is that there are only 7 different situations that the game can “surprise” you with. Looking at this through a different lense, there are only 7 scenarios that you have to plan around and leave options to accept in a way that supports your clean builds only infrastructure. In essence – you’ve tilted the scales of “risk” in your favor. As an organization, instead of reacting to issues as they arise you’ve planned to manage them proactively. The ability to anticipate and plan for the unseen is a major factor in the success of a long-term strategic plan.
Knowing When to Take a Stand
Have you ever been playing Tetris, left the hole for the “long piece” and it simply never showed up? You watch as your Tetris board rises higher towards the top until the inevitable “Game Over”. Failure! What went wrong you ask? Sometimes the game knows what you’re waiting for and it knows that you haven’t planned for the absence of that piece (the alternative path). You have no backup plan. If the game doesn’t send the long piece – the game wins. In Tetris (and in strategic planning), it’s important to recognize when you have to stop and take a stand. In Tetris, taking a short-term risk to ensure that things don’t spiral out of control. At a certain height, you just need a quick 5 lines so that you have the space to maneuver pieces around to support clean building. This becomes the second layer of Proactive Risk Management. Not only have you left yourself options for all 7 pieces, you’ve also left yourself options for quick lines IF the long piece never arrives. At some point – you’ve got to take a stand and stop the chaos. In strategic planning execution, this can come in many forms. Most often it’s a time of more frequent meetings across teams to ensure that milestones are met, teams are engaged / holding themselves accountable, and that there is a hyper focus on shorter term goals. It’s an understanding that at a certain threshold, if we don’t get a quick 5 lines, we will collectively fail (Game Over). Experienced players know when to take a stand.
Properly Leveraging All Things for Positive Results
The best players / leaders in organizations are ALWAYS positive. Always! Have you ever stopped to ask yourself “why”? The answer is quite clear if you study them for a month. They have an understanding that each Tetris piece can be rotated. Let me rephrase this: They understand that everything can be leveraged for more than one perceived use. Which also means that literally everything can be “rotated” into a positive. It’s a perspective shift that is powerful and can truly change whole organizations when an influential / inspiring leader is able to cascade this mindset across whole teams. Welcome to level 3 of Proactive Risk Management – the ability to quickly repurposes the (perceived negative) assets available to you for a positive result. How do we make this midset shift? I’m glad you asked!
Look vertical, horizontal, present, and in the future: It’s important to look at the entire board all at once. What’s your next piece in the preview screen? Can you setup that next piece to gain some lines based on how you rotate the current piece?
Remember that “building blocks” can be any resource available to you, even a negative outcome. Why are leaders obsessed with talking about failure? Because they’ve mastered this art. Even in moments of failure there are hindsights gained that will propel their experiential knowledge light years ahead of where it was before said failure. Don’t wallow on the failure. Focus on the learning and how you will apply this 1000 times between now and when you eventually decide to put the game down.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my Tetris Strategic Planning Series. Be sure to subscribe to my blog, follow my company page (Scott Q Consulting), and connect on LinkedIn.