What we can learn about honesty in business from Diplomacy (the board game)

There is a board game called Diplomacy. If you’re not familiar, think 7 player Chess played on a map of pre-World War I Europe.

The basic game mechanics are pretty simple which means that the real game is, surprise, diplomacy. It is a game about building the right alliances to get the other players to help you get your way while making them thinking you are helping them get their way.

This is a game full of deception, lying, and backstabbing. There can be only one winner, which means that at some point you have to turn on your erstwhile ally.

At least it seems that way.

Because there is another way to “win.”

The game ends when one player has 18 out of 34 “Supply Centers,” but the game also ends when all remaining players agree to a draw (or when time runs out in a tournament game). In either case, points are based on how many Supply Centers you control at that time.

And this is how I won a game of Diplomacy without ever lying, breaking a deal, or turning on an ally.

(For context, while the game is a board game, I play it online through a site/app called Diplicity, which is free if you want to give it a try.)

Without explaining how the game mechanics works, basically I’ll summarize it as more force tend to overwhelm less force, and the best way to create more force is through teaming up.

There are seven players: England, France, Germany, Russia, Turkey, Austria, and Italy. Here’s the map at the start of the game.

Don’t worry if you don’t understand board games, this story will make sense to you.

I was playing as Italy. Italy and Austria start in a rough spot. Austria has four neighbors which means it’s very easy for them to find themselves teamed up on and devoured. Italy, meanwhile lacks space to expand, which means that they can find find they languish in mediocrity until another player grows large enough to devour them.

I decided to try something different and play this game like I do most things in life: with honesty and integrity. I fully assumed this would not be a winning strategy, but what the heck.

Austria soon found themselves up against a combined force of Russia and Turkey, and were quickly on the ropes. I chose to support them, because the alternative was facing a stronger alliance once they were through with Austria.

This early support kept Austria in the game, and that made him generously offer me a piece of his territory so I could have some growth.

While the other players schemed, lied, and backstabbed, our alliance stayed true. When opportunities presented themselves, we could commit to capitalize on them without worrying about our backs.

In the end, it came down to a four player game of us (Italy and Austria) against an allied France and England, but the French/English alliance was once of convenience, and we convinced England that France was going for a solo win (which was true), so the alliance collapsed.

I later found out that Austria felt so grateful to me for saving him in the early game when I could have just turned on him, that he insisted that I be positioned to be the lead player in the draw and would not accept a draw until I was board leader, earning me the most points.

Conversely, earlier in the game, the French player had made a promise to me that he had no reason to make and no intention of keeping which he broke immediately. For no value, he earned my enmity for the remainder of the game, which may be some small part of how he ended up by the conclusion.

In the final scoring, there are 100 points to distribute, and I received 55 of them.

More importantly, I had never knowingly said one untrue thing to any player. I had never reneged on any deal. I had never turned on an ally.

If I can win a game that is all about lying and trickery with complete honesty, what does that teach us about business where it is almost never a zero sum game?

Too many business owners approach business like the France player. They say things like “it’s just business,” to justify unethical behavior.

They see not only their competitors as enemies to be defeated, but their vendors, staff, and even partners and investors.

They lie because they think it’s okay or even expected.

And they feel vindicated because eventually they find themselves with their back against the wall, no friends left, losing everything and they say “imagine how bad it would have been if I’d not looked out for number one?”

On the other hand, the Austria player committed fully to our alliance. Throughout the game, he honestly seemed a little confused by this level of loyalty, but he rolled with it because it was turning out well for him, and it did, getting him second place instead of eliminated.

He is like the business owner who does not see anyone as competition. The entrepreneur who looks at everyone she meets and asks “how can we work together?”

Like two friends of mine who are both web designers who had a conversation in which they discovered that they actually have very different specialties and could even subcontract some of their work to the other to make both stronger.

Then there are business owners who play like I did, deciding that they will work from a place of integrity no matter what.

It is better to lose with honesty and integrity than to win in deceit and avarice.

Because when you end up with your back to the wall after you’ve been honest in all dealings and generous to all people, you find that you have earned many friends. 

In fact, you find that you are never really up against the wall, because you always have friends ready to return the favors you have done for them, even if you don’t remember doing so.

This is how it was towards the end of the game when Austria said he wouldn’t accept a draw until I was winning. I was thinking about how to be fair to my ally, and because of that, he chose to give me the win.

What do we learn from this game?

We learn that the best way to win is to focus on how make other people win because they, in turn, will choose to return that favor.

I’ll see you around the table!

Looking for some great win-win events? I’ve got some great ones coming up. Check them out here.

Who gets on the live stage?

In the Awesome Virtual Interactive Event™ model, the live portion of the event is 10 speakers, each speaking for 15 minutes, in a 6 hour event. Between each speaker is a 15 minute interactive block.

Our average event has 11-15 speakers. The additional 1-5 are pre-recorded speakers, with their talks going out by email to the entire list of people who registered for the event.

While both give great exposure, and pre-recorded speakers are welcome and encouraged to attend live, there is more prestige in being a live speaker.

Some people have asked me how I decide who is live and who is pre-recorded, so I’d like to share my thinking. This is not an exact process, and sometimes people will end up live or pre-recorded for various reasons beyond what is here, but this is the general concept.

First, of course, I look at how well the speaker is aligned to the event. If they are totally misaligned, they will be invited to apply to a better fit event. However, for some who seem like they’d bring value but aren’t perfectly aligned, I’ll invite them as pre-recorded speakers.

The next determinant is replying the acceptance email. People who reply and express interest in live are prioritized. If I’m giving someone a live spot, I want to make sure they are engaged in the event. The first way they show that is by engaging with my emails.

Then we look at past promotional track record. I keep track of how many opt-ins each speaker on all of my events brings in.

The expectation for most events is a minimum of 10 registrations, and if their average is over 10 for past events, there’s a decent chance depending on how competitive the event is. If they are over 40 or so, then there’s a very good chance they’ll get it.

If someone is new to the AVIE stage, I’ll treat them as if they have 10. Anyone with a proven track record would be ahead of them in line, but anyone who has historically underperformed would be behind them.

There is also, of course, the PITA factor. How much of a pain in the ass is this speaker?

Some people are enthusiastic, easy to work with, and a joy to have live on the event. Others are less so. There are a few speakers who don’t bring big numbers, but they bring big energy and big value, so they may get on the stage because I know they will make the event better for everyone.

How do I get on live?

Want to get on live AVIE stages? Do three things:

Be enthusiastic and awesome. Show me that you’ll bring value and the audience will love you.

Promote! Promote! Promote! Get people to register through your link. And this isn’t just about having a big email list. One of our top promoting speakers has an email list of 200 (that’s two hundred) but she gets registrations by personally inviting people.

Don’t be a pain in the ass. If I feel anxiety when I see an email from you, your chance of getting on stage live is lower. Be easy to work with.

If you are invited as a pre-recorded speaker, that is an opportunity to get in front of our audience and an opportunity to prove yourself as an adept speaker and promoter to get invited to the next live stage.

Looking for stages to apply to? All open applications are currently listed here.

Want to be notified of upcoming speaking opportunities? Join the Speaker List.

Why I never worry about speakers not showing up

I was tagged in a post on LinkedIn recently where an event host was thanking a speaker for agreeing to join their event at the last minute to replace a speaker who dropped out.

This is the greatest source of stress for hosts of most live events. 

“What if a speaker doesn’t show up?!?”

I commented, “The trick is to build the event flexible enough that if speakers show up it’s good, and if they don’t show up, it’s still good!”

And now I’m going to tell you how.

The basic structure of my events is 15 minute blocks. 15 minutes of speaker, 15 minutes of interaction, alternating through the event.

The interactive blocks could be networking breakouts, hotseats, Q&A, open discussion, roundtables, or some other activity.

I’d like to share with you a story about how powerful this can be…

At EntrepreNERD last week, we had an incredible hotseat session.

An attendee had a serious challenge in her business. She was stuck, and not sure what to do.

Often, when someone comes to a hotseat, it’s because they are out of ideas. There is a frustrated, worried energy about them, and they are hoping for but not expecting to find a solution.

Our attendee raised her question, and four of our speakers were able to offer solutions. Solutions she had not thought of. Solutions that would work.

Her energy completely changed. From stuck, now she had ideas. She had a way forward. And the rest of the audience also was able to learn from these answers because many have similar or related challenges.

This hotseat took place in a time opened up by a speaker not being able to show up.

Far from it being a disaster or a disruption, a speaker cancellation is an opportunity for more engagement among the community we build on the event.

By building the event for interaction, as well as instruction, we can effortlessly adapt to a speaker cancellation by shifting the time allotted from instruction to interaction and the audience experience is no worse. In fact one might argue it’s better.