By Chuck Violand

August 4, 2014

When I was a kid growing up in the city, we used to play a game called kick the can. I was raised in a blue-collar neighborhood with four siblings and my family didn’t have a lot of money. What we did have were lots of #10 cans that had previously contained food items my mom had used to prepare meals.

Unlike families who lived in neighborhoods with large lawns and attached garages that exited onto their streets, my neighborhood had back alleys.

Alleys were unnamed and frequently poorly paved access roads to unattached garages located behind the homes. With little traffic on them they became de facto gathering places and playgrounds for the neighborhood kids. Summer nights were filled with groups of kids playing, laughing, and choosing up sides to play whatever game we made up.

The game I remember playing most was kick the can. Requiring little more than an active imagination, the #10 cans mentioned above, and kids with fast legs this game was custom-made for blue-collar kids with lots of energy to burn.

My own kids grew up in one of those neighborhoods with large lawns and attached garages, but they played their own version of kick the can called capture the flag. Once again, there were no complicated rules for playing. All you needed were enough kids to form teams and something designated as a flag.

Today, I find myself advising business owners on how to play a business version of capture the flag. Although we refer to the flags as goals or objectives or a vision, they’re still flags. And the people we’ve surrounded ourselves with are just like the kids we picked to be on our teams. The similarities are surprising in that they both often involve family members, friends and neighbors, or people from school or church.

One of the striking differences between capture the flag and business is that in too many small businesses the only person who has a really clear picture of the flag they’re trying to capture is the owner. And the place where this picture is closely guarded is often between the owner’s ears. Just as in the childhood game, when those in our company can see the flag, measure it, and understand what their role is in capturing it, it becomes much easier to win and a lot more fun to play. When we encourage our people, especially our key people, to have a voice in defining the flag and the strategy to capture it we have a better chance of winning.

How many kids would want to be picked for your team if they didn’t know what the flag looked like or where it was hidden, and they couldn’t have a say in how your team planned to capture it? My guess is not many. It’s no different in business, especially if you’re working with sharp employees who want an active part in the game. Everybody doesn’t want or need to be the leader of the team, but they do want to know they’re valued. When your people ask you where the company is headed or why you’re making some of the decisions you’re making, most aren’t challenging your authority as the leader. They just want to contribute to the game plan.

In Part II of this series I’ll talk about some of the nuances of capturing the flag in both the game and in business.