The Secret Life of Pies

So there you are on Thanksgiving. Dinner is over and it’s time for dessert. You bring out the traditional impressive array of pies. However, with the exception of some teens, everyone is stuffed (five minutes ago, this included the teens).  The pies just sit there, and you are facing the possibility of a house full of leftover pie.

Of course, some people might not have any problem with this.

But let us suppose that you really would like your guests to eat the dessert. I’m not sure why; perhaps you don’t want a house full of desserts or maybe it involves a clever plot to take over the world (hey, it’s no less believable than many James Bond plots). In any case, how do you get a lot of people to eat the pie?

Well, if you have a lot of people there, it’s not that hard. Just bring out one pie. The moment it looks like there’s not enough dessert for everyone, suddenly everyone is hungry again. Once one person takes a piece, the rest won’t be far behind. Fortunately, the odds are extremely low that your dinner will degenerate into a frantic struggle for control of the pie, although putting out a single pastry could result in a sudden game of scones.

So what does this have to do with business? That depends on how much your company values teamwork. In some companies, teamwork is irrelevant. No one cares, it’s not important, and it’s not how you get things done. In that case, you probably won’t care about the rest of this article. On the other hand, if teamwork does matter to you, then you might want to keep reading. Teams of all sorts tend to be very concerned with pies, and it’s not because an army travels on its stomach. Rather, much like that Thanksgiving dinner, what matters is the size of the pie. Different flavors can help, but primarily size matters.

Ultimately, the degree to which team members will cooperate or compete with one another depends very much on the size of the metaphorical pie they are working towards. When the pie is perceived to be large enough for everyone, you get cooperation. When the pie is perceived to be too small, you get competition.

But isn’t competition healthy? Friendly competition can be healthy under the right conditions. However, when the competition is at work, and the “trophy” directly impacts your job, then the competition quickly starts to look like an episode of “Tom Slick,” complete with all the dirty tricks and without the humor. In other words, not particularly healthy competition.

If all this seems too theoretical, or is just making you hungry for pie, think about Microsoft. For much of their corporate existence, they practiced employee stacking:  members of each team were rated from high to low. The highest rated people got the rewards, and the lowest rated were eliminated. Now, there is a claim that this encourages people to work harder. What it actually did was encourage their top people to avoid working together so that they wouldn’t be in competition with one another. It encouraged hiring weak performers so that there would always be someone to take the fall. It encouraged team members to sabotage one another rather than cooperate. It encouraged people to become very skilled at looking like they were sharing information while still withholding critical details. To be fair, they did work very hard at these tasks. Unfortunately, it can take years to regain the trust lost along the way.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the big pie encourages cooperation while the little pie triggers competition. If you want a successful team, and a successful company, find ways to expand the pie, and focus your competitive instincts on your real competition.

And if you’re bored after your next big holiday meal, you can always try serving a single pie and see what happens. Let me know how it goes.

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