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What Monopoly can teach us about our approach to behaviour and sustainability.

Miguel Reynolds Brandao and I invite you to venture on a thought experiment with us about the nature of the board games we play and about its relation to building sustainability into organisations and society. 

We had a chat about sustainable organisations. To me, sustainable organisations have both products and services that serve the betterment and future sustainability of people; and internally have enough resources, less bureaucracy, and good team dynamics so that communication flows, and collaboration means more effective organisations. Miguel says that by using transparency to establish trust with people, teams can be that much more collaborative and the activity is that much more sustainable.

I look at organisations now that are in need of a change both because of the change in social and technological fields but also because we recognise how some of our systems aren’t serving us. For instance, the behaviour of some human resource processes can create behaviour that isn’t healthy and creates toxic workplaces, like more overt competitiveness. On the sustainability agenda is the larger concern of renewable resources, deforestation and climate change.

I have been working on sustainable organisations through my doctorate. Miguel is currently working on a sustainability initiative through Corkbrick.

The change in thinking toward sustainability means we need more people-centred approaches. Perhaps, we need new rules…

Miguel starts to chat about playing games. He is really excited about the games that are available to us, and what they can teach us. We start talking about Monopoly. It’s a game invented in 1903 by Lizzie Magie.  The idea is to accumulate wealth by investing in property as fast as possible. A team player has to do this as fast as possible primarily because it can be like a shark frenzy – a grab of what is available, competitive bidding and buying, aggression and frustration, and potential annihilation of opponents. It can be a long game. I’m not sure that my sisters and I have ever really finished a game more than giving up at some point… It is a process of gaining a monopoly, and can teach people not only about gaining wealth during property investment but can feel like establishing an approach to how you do business. In this game collaboration is not rewarded; or might be for a short amount of time to the discretion of the players. 

Miguel says that by changing the rules of the game of monopoly there is so much more that people can learn about sustainability. Imagine, he says, with a special rule: the total properties are divided by the numbers of players and each player can decide what to buy when they have the opportunity, but cannot buy more than this ratio. In this way the game becomes far more strategic and fair, and levels part of the luck factor with strategy. It relaxes the smash and grab element of monopoly and introduces a far more sustainable game. This is an example of where changing the rules, and the way in which we think of the game, can change the way in which we behave: from players bankrupted, quitting and fighting to a game in which more people can win, and sustainably. Miguel uses this analogy to highlight the idea that in the same way our societies can limit total assets of individuals thus instilling people to values more than money and property: see The Marginal Million theory

For Miguel his lesson is one about assets and the wealth accumulated by people to the detriment of the rest of the population. He asks the question: How much space does any human need to have a fantastic life? His lesson is that there is a problem in that most assets, resources are owned each year by less people that own disproportionately more, and this is a dangerous trend. There cannot be sustainable environments in this way. 

For me the metaphor of game playing is in a slightly different vein but with the same end – towards sustainable communities of people. In organisations this looks like creating holistic systems of practice for companies (in human resources and through strategic design), and for individuals building more awareness of what they value, how they behave and how that contributes to their own and the greater good.

I remember the time my sisters and friends would play monopoly. To avoid the frustration of quick and aggressive games we would implement the rule of only allowing one property to be bought per round making it far more sustainable a game; and to allow people to enjoy its dynamics. 

What do you suggest?

Miguel and I would love to hear your feedback and ideas. How can simple changes in the rules of common games change the outcome and mood of the players? Can this same “energy” be applied to life and organisations. Afterall, society interactions and organisational interactions are strategic games too.

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