SungardASVoice: 4 Real-Life Business Lessons From Game Of Thrones

Jun 3 2014, 9:38am CDT | by


I’m a Game of Thrones (GoT) fanatic. I started reading the series during a 1999 vacation in Portugal, where I sacrificed sightseeing in the Algarve to finish George R.R. Martin’s 835-page masterpiece. As a longtime fantasy reader, I was blown away, fascinated, astounded. You see, Mr. Martin turned the fantasy genre on its ear. Until GoT came along, most fantasy was formulaic: a band of good characters go on a quest to battle evil with slim odds of success. Despite the odds, however, they always succeeded.

In real life and business, however, there is never a clearly defined good or evil. People are just people and companies are just companies, all behaving in their own perceived self-interest. And not all succeed. GoT is gritty and realistic and unafraid to depict the complexities of life, paving the way for a brand-new approach to epic fantasy today. There are plenty of business/life lessons to be had in GoT…here are the four that I drew:

1. No one is immune to biting the dust.

Mr. Martin has a penchant for killing off his main characters. GoT fans have been repeatedly shocked by the deaths of such prominent characters as Ned, Robb, Catelyn, and Joffrey. And in Book 5, “A Dance With Dragons,” he kills off another headliner. It keeps us fans wondering, who’s going to be next?

Business is also a “game of thrones.” Think of dethroned Enron, Lehman Brothers, and Blockbuster, once monarchs in their own industries, now left in the dust. Then there are the countless other businesses who have simply lost their edge over time, like Sears, Best Buy, and Yahoo. As Cersei Lannister said, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” The same holds true in Western business – either you innovate and continue to execute (legally), or you fall by the wayside. No one is immune.

2. Trust, but verify.

Robb Stark makes a deal with Walder Frey. Robb Stark breaks the deal with Walder Frey. Walder Frey kills Robb Stark, his mother, his wife, and all of his retainers in an infamous massacre now known as the “Red Wedding.” Frey thought he could trust Stark. He was wrong. Stark thought he could trust Frey. He was very wrong.

This reminded me of the real-life story of Apple and Microsoft, of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates (but obviously, no one killed anyone). Jobs recruited Microsoft to develop applications for the Macintosh operating system. Fearing Microsoft would copy his ideas into their own interface, Jobs made Microsoft sign an agreement that forbade Microsoft from releasing any software that used a mouse for at least a year after the Mac first shipped. Jobs exploded when he learned that Microsoft was seemingly explicitly violating this agreement, culminating in a monumental 1988 lawsuit against Microsoft (which Apple eventually lost on a technicality).

So remember: yes, you need to trust people in business. Yes, you need good partners. But never forget to verify that you have the same understanding.

3. Unlikely partnerships can be successful.

Speaking of partners, GoT is full of unlikely pairings that somehow work. The uppity, honorable Brienne and the king-slaying, morally ambiguous Jaime Lannister. The tragically crippled Bran (thanks to the aforementioned kingslayer) and the strong-but-simple Hodor. The feisty-but-naive Arya Stark and the cynical knight Sandor Clegane (otherwise known as “The Hound.”) These characters are thrown together on difficult journeys, become allies, and seem to gain mutual respect and even friendship. They’re also eerily effective together, as when Bran takes over Hodor’s consciousness and acts through him, or when Arya and The Hound team up to skewer the Tickler and Polliver at an inn near Riverrun (two names on her revenge list).

Such unlikely pairings happen in business, too. Examples include Apple and Nike teaming up to put iPod technology into Nike gear, Banana Republic partnering with Virgin Airlines to redesign flight attendants’ uniforms, and Google partnering with Luxottica to give Google Glass a much-needed “cool” factor. Even former rivals make good pairings, like when Apple decided to use Intel processors in their computers.

So don’t limit yourself to conventional business partnerships. Some of the most unlikely pairings can bring the greatest ROI.

4. It’s important to have a competitive advantage, but it’s crucial to use it in time.

It’s undeniable that in a dragon-less world, dragons are an advantage. Right now, the only one with dragons is Daenerys Targaryen. Arguably, the throne is hers by right, and could be hers by might, if only she would just act. Yes, I know that she has to wait until the dragons are grown, and yes, she needs ships to cross the Narrow Sea, but come on already! In Book 5 (MAJOR SPOILER), another valid claimant to the throne is revealed, Dany’s life is threatened and her rule undermined, and her dragons are locked up for fear that they’ll lay waste to humans, not just sheep. Unleash them on Westeros, I say, and be quick about it!

Similarly, the business landscape is dotted with companies that boasted competitive advantages, but ultimately failed to use them properly. Xerox Parc actually had the original graphical user interface technology, but sat on it for years. Ultimately, Apple came along and went to market with it, and the rest is business history. Until a few years ago, Blackberry had the most dominant mobile device in the marketplace, but they failed to keep up with changing trends in consumer technology and allowed Apple and Google to surpass them. And before there was Blackberry, there was Palm, who couldn’t figure out how to translate its massive success in the personal organizer space into dominance in the smartphone space./>/>

Competitive advantage is important in the corporate game of thrones, but you must also know how and when to use it.

And now I’d like to hear from you: Am I missing any other lessons? What else can Game of Thrones teach us about life and business? And finally, how can I write a post about Game of Thrones and not mention Tyrion Lannister? (Perhaps I should have added a business lesson about “not underestimating the little guy”…)


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