Five things business can learn from Game of Thrones
This article contains no plot spoilers
Whether or not you have watched it, irrespective of divided opinion on the final series, Game of Thrones has been one of the biggest television sensations of recent years. As our TV watching habits have changed fewer of us watch episodes as they’re aired opting instead to watch on demand or binge watch entire seasons. Games of Thrones however has bucked this trend, fans who didn’t watch live needed to avoid social media until they caught up. Recent controversy aside, the success is impossible to ignore. An epic story, strong characters, stunning imagery and of course excellent PR have all come together to create one of the most talked about TV series and brands. I also believe, one of the major reasons for its success has been the relatable human responses to fantastical events.
Employing people can be difficult, but given that nothing is unique in business, it is your people can make your business flourish and set you apart from the competition. Is there anything a fantasy TV show can teach us about getting the best from people? I think so!
- Resilience is important
There are many theories relating to how can you recruit for it, train it and develop it. However, there is no debate that the current business landscape is challenging and constantly changing. Therefore, an ability to adapt to change, deal with setbacks and keep going really is important.
All the characters that survived to final series demonstrated resilience in abundance and all in very personal ways based on their unique talents. They faced multiple setbacks, had to change their plans and allegiances over and over. Without exception, the characters that survived eight series including those who didn’t make the final episode dealt with brutal personal trauma, but they all came though stronger if a little more cynical.
It is nicely summed up by the word bouncebackability which entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2005 after being used by Ian Dowie in 2003 to describe how his team Crystal Palace went from battling relegation in December to being promoted through the play offs the following May.
In the world of work, bouncebackability is important too and an ability to respond strongly to unforeseen events can make a huge difference.
- Expect the unexpected
The Game of Thrones plot famously turned viewers expectations on their head with shocking twists and turns. Predicting what might happen next has been a hot topic at water coolers for eight years.
It is not unrelated to resilience, but I’ve given it a separate category to emphasise the importance of planning. Lee Child’s much quoted “hope for the best, plan for the worst” is no better illustrated than by Morgan Stanley before the 911 attack on the World Trade Centre. Identifying their high-profile location, they planned seriously for evacuations and despite employing 2,700 people over 22 floors in the South Tower, they only lost seven employees. Clearly this would have been different in the North Tower which was hit first, but their realistic preparation rather than simply hoping for the best made all the difference.1
The unsuccessful Game of Thrones characters were unlucky, no amount of planning can compensate for dragon fire, assassins, poison or any of the other creative ways they met their demise. The successful ones however knew their strengths, always kept their guard up, and refused to consider anything other than survival as an option.
- Politics is damaging
In the end, luck, strength of character, resilience, changing loyalties and valerian steel would all have been far less necessary if it wasn’t for the deep rooted political divisions in Westeros. Of course, we love the drama on screen and that is one of the reasons it’s been so watchable, but on screen is where that level of drama should stay.
A strong culture includes shared commitment and values. Supporting each other and working towards the same goals. Divisions, silos and personal agendas are at odds with this and can do a great deal of damage. Change expert John Kotter suggests that the most damaging thing for a change initiative is a senior person who visibly doesn’t believe in it.2
The best Leaders in Games of Thrones were the ones that were driven by their values and belief that what they were doing was in the best interests not just for themselves. The best leaders in business consider the whole organisation and everyone in it not just themselves.
- Everyone makes mistakes
Certainly in Game of Thrones, nobody was perfect. All the characters had blood on their hands either directly or indirectly. Many of the characters switched sides to survive, often they regretted their choices and changed direction again.
In all aspects of our life, we all make mistakes and we all can and should be prepared to change our minds. In business this is particularly important, none of us know everything and none of us know what we don’t know. Be prepared to keep learning, be prepared to change direction.
In his excellent book Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed talks about changing our whole approach to making mistakes.3 Learn from them, don’t repeat them. Many of our biggest learning opportunities come from our greatest mistakes. While it might feel safer and more comfortable to hide from them, never speak about them again and hope no one else brings them up, this approach limits our opportunity to grow.
Right to the end of the final series, characters were reflecting on history and making decisions based on new knowledge. Ultimately the end may have proved controversial, but somebody was always going to be disappointed. Like the characters in their show, the writers needed to make a decision, and it was never going to please everyone.
- Teamwork makes all the difference
Even in politically divided Westeros, there were times when old divisions had to be cast aside. I promised no plot spoilers but many of the epic battles were won with collaboration, often at the eleventh hour.
My final point had to be about the benefits of working together. There are sporting analogies I could use to illustrate this point, business examples, and hundreds of articles or books I could cite. In the end, it’s as simple as we are stronger together than alone. How we lead and manage our teams, how we define our values, how we work can all be variable. There will be outstanding stars but harnessing the talent in our businesses and getting everyone to pull together will give a huge competitive advantage.
- Coutu, Diane L. “How resilience works.” Harvard business review5 (2002): 46-56.
- Kotter, John P. “Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail.” (1995): 59-67.
- Syed, Matthew. Black Box Thinking: the surprising truth about success. Hachette UK, 2015.