The Beer Game is an activity that systems theorists, like me, use as teaching exercise with postgraduate students and consulting clients to show them the way that organisational structures determine behaviours. It was developed at MIT and has been used for many years to demonstrate some of the fundamental concepts underlying Systems Theory and System Dynamics.
One of the important ideas is the distinction between Events, Patterns and Structures.
Events are things that happen once. Chance occurrences, that are not particularly important. But sometimes they keep happening and become Patterns. When they become Patterns, we need to look for the Structures that create them.
Some people refer to this as the iceberg model because the events are all to see above the surface and structures and patterns lurk beneath the surface.
In a recent blog, I all listed the people who had resigned or been sacked by Donald Trump in the first four months of his presidency: In case you missed them: Trump sackings/resignations to date. There have been six of them. This constitutes a Pattern.
There are clearly structures within the White House system that are creating the situation leading these repeated resignations and sackings. Simply getting rid of the people is not going to solve the problem. Sackings and resignations will continue until these structures are changed.
The structures within the West Wing will be the same as any organisation, only a bit more toxic and with much higher stakes. These are likely to be cultural, political and psychological and power structures, rather than physical or policy structures, in this particular case.
Some years ago, one of the great gurus of Systems Thinking, Peter Senge, visited Australia. He told the story of when he ran the Beer Game. Some time into the game, as was always the case, chaos reigned. Then the participants, a senior executive, stood up and walked out of the room. He returned sometime after. During the debrief Peter asked him why he left.
“Look, he said, “I’m the vice president of a large multi-billion-dollar-a-year company. I’m smart and I’m good at my job. But I can’t get this board game to work. Now I realise, it’s not me, it’s the way the game is set up, is designed to that we will fail.”
(He was right, the game is structured in such a way that it is impossible to get it to work. In fact, the harder well-intentioned people try, the less likely they are to succeed. The only way to give to work, is to change the structure)
The executive continued, “Now I’ve also had to sack three marketing directors in the last four months and I’ve left instructions to sack a fourth one. Playing this game, I suddenly realised that the problem is not the people. The job of marketing director is structured so that those guys were set up to fail. I now realise that’s what I need to fix.”
Unfortunately, the 44th president of United States doesn’t think he needs to learn anything. So he is not likely to fix the problem in the West Wing.
Or anywhere for that matter.