Back in 2003 I mentored a team of trainee solicitors through a three-month business simulation, teaching them how to run a company. Other mentors were called in from big City finance and legal companies: KPMG, Freshfields, that ilk. I, by contrast, had just cashed out on Hogshead Publishing. At the start of the exercise I was not even a blip on my team’s radar, much less a potential employer.
We won the game. We didn’t just win it, we aced it. Destroyed it. I believe we were within a few points of the maximum possible score. I have a picture of me in a smart suit with the team, accepting first prize from the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith. It was a few days after he had advised the Blair government that there were legal grounds for invading Iraq. I was tempted to punch him in the teeth, but felt that on balance it would have overshadowed my team’s moment of glory, and the evening was really about them.
What were the winning business principles I passed on to my team? Mostly how to reverse-engineer a data-set and create a spreadsheet that will show you what inputs will optimise the results. In other words I taught them not how to play the game, but how to play the meta-game. Examine the structure, the rules and values that constrain the other participants, and work out how to take advantage of them.
Good businesses already do this. Bad political parties do too.
When Germany invaded Denmark in World War II, the Hungarian chemist George de Hevesy dissolved the gold Nobel Prizes of Max von Laue and James Franck into aqua regia to prevent the Nazis from stealing them. He placed the resulting solution on a shelf in his laboratory at the Niels Bohr Institute. It was subsequently ignored by the Nazis who thought the jar—one of perhaps hundreds on the shelving—contained common chemicals. After the war, de Hevesy returned to find the solution undisturbed and precipitated the gold out of the acid. The gold was returned to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Nobel Foundation who recast and presented the medals to Laue and Franck.
Work out the system, then work within it to defeat it.
This is how you win games.