Matters Column

Do you run your business like a game of solitaire?

September 4, 2015
Text Size:

I frequently use solitaire as a way to relieve tension or to pass time when I need a break. My father was a General Motors executive who was frequently under an enormous amount of pressure, and he would play solitaire at the kitchen table to relieve his tension before retiring to bed.

Different people find different methods to relieve the pressure in their lives. I have always found it interesting that some people cheat at solitaire. Seems self-defeating.

I was thinking one night about how this simple card game has a lot of elements that are similar to running a small business.

I don't know when I last saw somebody using cards to play solitaire. Today, the game is almost always played on an electronic device. Turning the cards when playing solitaire on an electronic devise can lead to errors, due to the ease and speed. Sometimes you see a play you should have made just as you click and move on. Whoops.

Computers and computer software can generate mountains of data and reports with ease that can give a business owner a false sense of control. The devil is in the details. Sometimes you need to slow things down in order to get a grip on what is happening in your business.

Starting a small business is similar to beginning a game of solitaire. You know what cards are in the deck. You just don't know in what order they are going to come up.

An example would be overall economic conditions. No one knows when the economy is going to turn up or down. The right cards coming up is when the economy stays strong as you build your enterprise. The wrong cards coming up is when there is an economic downturn. They are both unpredictable and you must deal with conditions as they come up.

Focus is important in solitaire. That's why it’s a good game to play when you are stressed: It helps to take your mind off the stressful events. If you are a high-energy, creative type, keeping focused is particularly hard.

If you lose focus playing solitaire, you will miss plays, and the opportunity to make those plays may not come up again as the game progresses. Or another opportunity may come up — but that is trusting to chance that you will be lucky.

Being lucky is a great trait for a small business owner, but I would bet on a focused entrepreneur before a lucky one. I don't remember who said it, but “The harder I work, the luckier I get” is a good small business observation.

Decisions must be made in solitaire and in business.

In solitaire, you sometimes have a choice between making one play or another. If you knew what cards were still face down and where they were, your decision would be easy — but that’s not the way it is played. You need to assess what cards are up and what cards are down and what is the likelihood you will turn up the card you need. Choose right and you win. Choose wrong and you lose.

In business, the same situation has an additional factor. The difference between business and solitaire is that in solitaire you cannot look at the cards. In business, you had better, to the best of your ability, figure out which cards are facing down. That’s called research, investigation, analysis, and so forth.

Some business owners run their business as if it were a game of solitaire. Their attitude is that you cannot predict events. It is difficult to see forward, but you can give it a good shot. Leaving your livelihood to fate is not a good management ploy.

Mistakes are made in cards and in business.

Sometimes you don't even know when you missed an opportunity. The error may self-correct when playing solitaire because a certain combination gives you a second chance to take an advantage. Or the chance of the cards may not present you with another opportunity, but not having seen it the first time, you won't notice the chance was not there the second time.

If you are aware of what is going on around you in your business, you should know when an opportunity was missed. Being that you do have some control over events in business, once you have become aware of an issue, you often can give yourself another chance.

One of the most frustrating aspects of solitaire is when the game starts out as if everything is going to fall in to place. All the aces come up in the first round, and it is as if someone set the deck up for an easy win. You’re down to the last few cards when you realize a lower-denomination card is unavailable due to a higher card blocking it.

On the other hand, there are those games when you start out thinking nothing is going to line up and all you are going to do is fruitlessly turn over cards. Then all of a sudden, the cards start coming up in your favor and, surprisingly, you win.

That’s why you do not want to lose focus in the bad times — because if you’re alert, you may hit a combination that puts you over the top. The same is true of the hubris of what looks like an easy win. You may miss a play because you are so sure you have an easy win that you don't pay attention.

All games have lessons to teach. Team sports such as soccer teach teamwork and co-operation. Individual contests such as chess teach strategy. Games such as solitaire hone our focusing skills and our attention to detail.

The next time you come across an employee playing solitaire on company time, it may be they are simply practicing decision-making skills. At least, that’s the explanation I would have given. Maybe that’s why I was self-employed for 43 years.

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates and past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

Recent Articles by Paul Hense

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus