The Red Coats Would Have Scoffed At New Media Too

I have spoken to a significant number of business veterans who are afraid of the potential legal, cultural, brand and other ramifications of loosening up their restrictions on the employee use of new media for internal and for external communications.  After all, new media activities like voting, sharing, updating statuses, etc. don’t look at all like traditionally serious business activities.  But then again, from the perspective of the British Red Coats invading Boston, the Colonial Army didn’t look much like a traditionally serious army.

The reason armies, tribes and companies exist is that they are, by and large, a more effective way to deal with the many variables that exist in a complex enemy, challenge or market and to turn the situation into a better one for a group of stakeholders.  In order to run an organization, every member of that organization agrees to allow their behaviors to be restricted in some way for the common good.  The trick for any organization, though, is to balance restriction with freedom.  Restrict employees or managers too much, and an organization can slow down and eventually grind to a halt.  Loosen up the restrictions too much, on the other hand, and the organization can speed up and lose all cohesion.  A large part of finding the right balance is accurately assessing the speed and complexity of the enemy, the challenge or the environment, and matching the organization’s restrictions appropriately.

To illustrate this point in a more entertaining way, i would like to share a personal story.  A few years ago, four friends and i decided to enter a paintball tournament in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.  Due to the fact that none of us had ever played any sort of competitive paintball before we entered ourselves in what we thought was a tournament for people who had never before played in a tournament.  The four of us who had never played (on of our team members, Dennis, had played backyard paintball and therefore at least had a very accurate gun) before went out and bought the cheapest possible equipment we could find, threw on our grubbiest jeans and t-shirts, and showed up on the morning of the tournament, mostly ready to play, under the team name of “The Southern Boys.”  As we sat near the entrance to the field, however, we were met with a horrifying site.  Car after car, truck after truck was shuttling in groups of rather serious-looking men.  Not only were these men serious-looking, but they were also remarkably well armed and well armored.  All of them had very sophisticated looking paintball weapons, most of them had matching uniforms, and many of them even had some sort of intimidating-looking body armor.  Compared to our raggedy t-shirt and jean-clad band of misfits, they looked like the Redcoats to our Minute Men.  Now, in the clear hindsight of history books the anticipation of such pitched battles seems very sexy and smart, but when you are facing the prospect of an entire day of physical pain (paintballs hurt quite a bit, for those of you who have never played) and humiliation, it seems very dismal.  In order to move this story along to the important point, i will skip to the important details.  Soon after our Redcoat opponents began arriving, Dennis figured he ought to check and see if we had entered the wrong tournament.  As it turns out we had.  Instead of a tournament for people who had never played before, it was a tournament for people who had never won a tournament before.  So not only were most of the teams experienced at paintball, but they were also grizzled and angry at having come in second or third in previous tournaments.

We had a quick team meeting before the start of the event in light of the new information, and all agreed to throw ourselves into the event, despite the obvious fact that we were likely to take some serious casualties.

Before taking the field for the first game (as i recall, it was actually against a group of ex-military guys), we laid down three very simple strategies for ourselves:

1. Run! – when the referee blew the whistle to start the game, two of our fastest guys would run helter-skelter down either side of the field and plant themselves behind some sort of cover in order to flank the other team and make it harder for them to hide behind small barriers

2. Snipe! – Dennis, who had the most accurate gun at long-range, would stay toward the back of the field as a sort of sniper/observer, barking out commands to the others and trying to put pressure on the other team

3. Talk! – everyone was to talk constantly.  Since we hadn’t had time to come up with some sort of silent sign system, we figured it was better to be loud and informed than silent and unaware, even though our communication would surely give our positions away to the opponents.

To make a very long and entertaining story short, we won our first game, despite the fact that Dennis tripped, fell and broke his gun in the initial seconds, starting us off at a 5 to 4 disadvantage.  This was surprising to us, especially given the additional fact that the other team clearly had memorized hand signals (they didn’t speak in an effort to conceal their positions), and team tactics that they were trying to use against us.  We assumed that the win was a fluke, of course.  But we were wrong.  We won our next match, and the next and the next.  And we won by a perfect score each time.  Amazingly, we won the entire  8-hour tournament without losing a single game.  So what is interesting about this from an organizational standpoint?

Let’s start with the second most interesting thing first.  How did we beat all those teams?  Balance.  Quite by accident, we had struck just the right balance between restricting our actions and letting ourselves run wild.  The other teams were not so fortunate.  Many of them had so restricted their movements through tactics, hand signs, etc. that they couldn’t react to our rapid movements.  Many others had no restrictions at all, and were too poorly coordinated to react to even our very simple flanking tactic.

Now for the first most interesting part of the story, which occurred at the lunch break, where all of the teams were milling around in a huge tent and socializing.  During the break, we overheard many other teams talking about their first round of games.  Much to our surprise, many of them were talking about us – the Southern Boys right in front of us, never suspecting us to be the subject of their legends:

“I keep hearing about some team called the Southern Boys.  They’re beating the pants off of everyone.  Have you ever heard of them before?  Do you even know what they look like?” said one tough-looking guy to another – both standing right in front of me.  “No, but i’m sure not looking forward to playing them” was the reply.

You see, just like the British Red Coats who had been victorious worlwide for many years and the business veterans whose skills have served them so well in the markets for the last few decades, these experienced paintball players had developed a comfortable blindness to any team or method which didn’t use the traditional tools, uniforms and restrictive tactics which had  worked for them in the past.  As a result, all it took was for one team to stumble, through dumb luck (though we’d like to think that there was a little bit of skill involved), on a more nimble, albeit riskier and less serious-looking set of tactics and the old guard ended up playing their next tournament in the “never won a tournament” division.

For a slightly more theoretical look at the dynamics in these sorts of things, check out:

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