Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

Success is not a zero-sum game


In game theory and economic theory, zero-sum describes a situation in which one person’s gain is exactly balanced by another person’s loss. In games like chess, one person wins and the other loses. The win (+1) added to the loss (-1) equals zero.

Life in the business world at times feels like a zero-sum game. As you move up the ladder of success the number of positions decreases and the pressure to succeed increases. The situation can leave you feeling like the only way you can succeed is if someone else fails. While this sentiment may be common, it is wrong. In fact, most successful people freely admit they achieved their success with the help of others. The following resources substantiate my claim that success is not a zero-sum game:

According to Steve Farber — author of Greater Than Yourself — the only way for knowledge to truly lead to power in a person’s life is for that person to give it away. The reason this principle works is seemingly simple: “Everyone will want to work with you. And because of that you’ll be able to accomplish anything you set out to do.” Invest in relationships with other people and be clear on your intentions to make a difference in the lives of others. Promote their welfare, fortunes, success and capacity for achievement. Give away your knowledge, connections, experience, advice, life lessons and confidence. Hold others accountable for their commitments.

In his book The Speed of Trust, author Stephen MR Covey discusses the value that comes from trusting others. Trust is the very basis of the new global economy, and he shows how trust—and the speed at which it is established with clients, employees and constituents—is the essential ingredient for successful people and organizations.

Chris Warner and Don Schmincke, the authors of the book High Altitude Leadership describe what happens when people do not work together. The act of placing a higher priority on one’s own desires or “needs” than on the desires and needs of other people defines the word ‘selfishness.’ Selfish behavior robs companies of profits, reduces job satisfaction and weakens organizations’ culture. Overcoming selfishness is critical to effective leadership. This is done by crafting a compelling saga — language and actions that inspire passion for a strategic result. The compelling saga drives performance, inspires value-based behavior and provides strategic focus.

Author and blogger Art Petty offers 8 suggestions to improve your team’s problem solving skills. Problem solving takes teamwork, and in the process, everyone involved grows and improves. Art writes: “The best learning opportunities in the workplace occur when individuals or teams come face to face with a vexing problem.  These situations provide outstanding growth opportunities and a great chance to generate and implement innovative and creative solutions.”

What examples have you seen where working together and helping others leads everyone involved to increased success?

The Product Management Perspective: Product managers rely on others to help them succeed. The most successful products and services come from organizations where teams collaborate effectively. Product managers are (or should be) the catalyst for this success.

5 thoughts on “Success is not a zero-sum game

  1. Although I completely agree with your post, I do think that relative product success, and product managers’ success is a Zero Sum game. Being able to successfully deliver a product can often be seen as a matter of faith for those outside of the product management world. Failure to deliver successfully directly impacts the product manager, but successful product do directly

    • A zero-sum game is a game with an indirect relationship. Win-Lose.

      In your failure to deliver results in a negative outcome situation is a Lose-Lose or direct relationship, not a zero-sum game.

      Likewise the disconnection of product success and product manager success implies a lack of linkage or relationship between outcomes, not a zero-sum game either. There are probabably more than one game being played in this situation. Worse, many other games are being played across the entire firm, so the best game is to leave.

  2. There are surely some instances where product success is a zero-sum game. However, I think they are rare. I cannot think of an instance where a product manager works in a zero-sum game. The more they help others succeed, the more they prosper, and the better their products perform in the market. -Michael

  3. Pingback: Product Management Reader: 17June09 | The Productologist: Exploring the Depths of Product Management

  4. Economists have warned that globalism should not be a zero-sum game. Unfortunately, globalism is being played that way, otherwise the focus would be on conserving managerial focus, rather than cash, and that managerial focus would be spent creating new categories and new wealth, rather than managing the outsourcing itself.

    To play globalism as a non-zero sum game, you must let the outsourced manage their efforts their way. This without cultural fit, customer (you) intrusion, or middle of the night calls around the world. Spec it. Ship the spec. Forget it. Focus, instead on making a new world where the outsourced skill is irrelevant.

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