Monday, 19 September 2011

Spoof - a training tool for cool, calm leadership through uncertainty

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training. Here is the full list.

The essence of leadership is managing uncertainty. Leaders assess their environments with incomplete information, and then make and communicate decisions with confidence and charisma. For many people the hardest challenge of leadership is accepting that uncertainty and incomplete information form the base from which they have to advance.

This is especially true in military leadership where the ratio of uncertainty to certainty is exceptionally high. Enemy action, environmental factors and changing higher commander's intent are just some of the factors that can challenge the premises of a military leader.

Throughout their training, Royal Marines are constantly challenged to make decisions on the basis of limited information, and then challenged further with disruption after disruption. Like leaders in any field, they learn to improve both their analysis of uncertain situations and their ability to communicate effectively despite this through practical experience. Royal Marine training, lasting 9 months for recruits and 12 months for young officers, provides ample opportunity for this, and after basic training, exercises and operations both develop and test the ability of marines and officers to function despite the "fog of war".

While certain factors such as the weather are non-human, many of the uncertainties faced by a Royal Marine result from human factors such as enemy action, changes in the dispositions, actions and priorities of other friendly forces, changes in orders from above and changes of performance within the team. And of course this is true for leaders in non-military situations too, where competitors, regulators, suppliers, customers and colleagues can all increase uncertainty and produce surprises. So leaders both in the Royal Marines and beyond need to become as comfortable as possible in managing uncertainty by reading the behaviour and intent of other people.

While the huge resources available for leadership training in the Royal Marines are rarely provided by or available to civilian employers, there is one simple tool which I first encountered while in Royal Marines training, and which I recommend as a quick and easy way to practise reading other people and managing uncertainty. This is "Spoof". Spoof is a simple game, and unusally for a game, it has no winner, only a loser. All that is required is 3 coins or items of a similar size per player, and a consequence for the loser. Often spoof is used to decide who will buy the next round for a group of drinkers. As a result, it has a rather disreputable image, but I suggest that it's a great training aid.

In spoof, each player puts one, two or three coins - or none - into their right hand, and then each in turn guesses how many coins are in play in total (between zero and three times the number of players), choosing a number that has not yet been chosen. When all players have guessed, all reveal their hands, the coins are counted up and whoever guessed correctly (if anyone did) leaves the game. This continues until only one person is left, and they are the loser, buying the round or whatever the forfeit may be. You can find full details of the game in this article by a Professor of Physics attached to the Complexity Centre at the University of Warwick. As you can see, spoof is of academic as well as social interest.

So if you want to practise and develop your aptitude for dealing with the unpredictability of other people, I recommend taking every opportunity for playing spoof. Whether it is for the next round of drinks or to choose who undertakes some unwelcome but necessary task, it spices up the process of finding a loser and gives some great insights into how other people think. To add an extra lesson in maintaining an unflappable exterior, I recommend the "non-emotional spoof" variant in which anyone displaying any sighs of relief on guessing the correct number of coins is put back into the next round.

Spoof is a simple game but with many permutations. As well as providing insight into the behaviour of others it also offers a means to distribute bad news without someone having to make a choice. The loser is the person left in the game, not the person chosen by anyone else.

In my own favourite game to date, I went out for a meal with 11 Army officers and before ordering we agreed to spoof for the whole bill. As a result, each of us ate and drank everything we could, reasoning that there was only a low chance that we would have to pay. After a huge meal, we played 11 rounds of spoof to decide who would pay the bill that amounted to a month's salary. I was lucky; I came out in round 7. With each successive round the pressure mounted until two men faced each other. One guessed correctly and impassively thanked his opposite number; the other, with no trace of emotion, picked up the bill. Both unflappable in victory and defeat.

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training. Here is the full list.

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