Toy Fair -- the game and toy industry's annual expo -- is here once again, so I thought I'd take another look at what businesses can learn from classic toys. As you may know, the economic discipline known as game theory is an approach to studying competitive strategies. If games can teach us about high-level strategy, perhaps toys can teach us something about the daily operations that take up most of our time. An earlier post showed how toys like the Toy Story collectibles and Lego bricks contained lessons on topics such as asset management and core competencies. Here are three new examples of toy theory in action.
The Barrel of Monkeys Theory
Each of the twelve identical plastic monkeys is posed in a way that their arms take the shape of hooks. The idea is to pick up one monkey and use it to fish another monkey out of the pile by making the two monkeys link arms. Hooking two monkeys together is a piece of cake, but the challenge is trying to link the remaining monkeys together. You're only allowed to touch the first monkey, so as the monkey chain grows longer, you have less and less control over the monkey at the other end of the line.
Does that sound like the chain of command at your office? I thought so. It's not easy to make your intentions translate through that many layers of hierarchy. Like the game of "Telephone," part of the problem is that each link in the chain represents a loss of fidelity. In the case of the Barrel of Monkeys -- and certain organizations -- the problem is amplified by the fact that you have a limited number of ways to control the system. You can pull, but you can't push.
The Paddington Bear Theory
If you're not familiar with Paddington, the plush toy was based on a series of books by Michael Bond. The most memorable part of the story is the set-up: In the books, Paddington was found alone in the train station with a note pinned to his jacket saying, "Please look after this bear."
That's a hard invitation to turn down. The stuffed animal version of Paddington had a lot going for him, including a very cool hat and coat... but the little note was the part you couldn't ignore. How could you not want to take care of him when you'd been given an invitation like that? After all, somebody had entrusted you with the job.
Narrative can be a powerful tool at work. People are more likely to do a good job if they understand how their task fits into a bigger corporate goal. Also, think if what it means to work on a project when you know that it has a history, that somebody else has already invested a lot of effort into it, and that it really matters to them.
The Rubik's Cube Theory
It only takes a small number of moves to scramble a Rubik's Cube. Theoretically, reversing the order of the twists is the fastest solution, but it's not feasible. When you pick up a scrambled cube, you don't know what twists were originally performed. All you can see is the current state of the cube, which is a complete mess. This usually means that the way out is longer than the way in.
This is one of the problems with "post-mortem" meetings. When something doesn't go as intended, it's absolutely a good idea to try to figure out what went wrong and why. However, too often people assume that the cause of the mess can be accurately identified. Unfortunately, a failed strategy is often like an unsolved Rubik's Cube.
The good news is that the true fastest solution doesn't require knowing how things became a mess. You just need a good strategy to get out of any mess regardless of the cause. Experts at solving Rubik's Cubes don't need to hem and haw as they figure out a solution. They have proven procedures that work. They may require a lot of steps, but they get the job done... and they get it done fast.
Read the original Toy Theory post for tips from Star Wars action figures, Tickle Me Elmo, and Mouse Trap.