Herding Cats vs Consensus Building

In my favorite flight computer game, two teams of 15 players fly World War II fighter planes and bombers.  Skillful control is important, but strategy and team work matter at least as much.  Isolated planes are easy targets, but most coordination is by (slowly) typing strangers.  The type of map determines the victory conditions (capture the airfield for example.)  How do we work together well enough to win?

Sometimes the blue team doesn’t coordinate at all.  Players fly off alone in all directions and get shot down by pairs or trios of red team planes.   No one protects our fragile bombers or vulnerable ground units.  We lose.

Sometimes a few individuals start typing insults, maybe after some friendly fire accident or collision.  (Imagine ten planes swirling around all trying to land on the same airstrip or prevent the other team’s players from landing.  Plus damaged planes fly poorly, and pilots gray out from too many G’s.  Chaos!)  With a third of our team busy typing instead of flying, we lose.

There are no team captains, no trained and appointed leaders.  We all have the same incentives: crews and planes improve more with successful actions, and new planes unlock.  We all have the same game-defined goals.  Sometimes a teammate decides to boss people around.  No one is obliged to listen, though, or believe it’s a good plan.  The bossy teammate gets ignored (teammates scatter) or gets snarky insults (players bicker)… and we lose.

Often the opposing team has the same issues, and the battle is fairly muddled and long.  But sometimes one team gets it together and wins handily.  How?

The best technique I’ve seen is a quick question to build consensus.  “Who’s landing?” doesn’t take long to type or read, but it gets individuals thinking about victory and landing approach vs covering flight.   One player has acknowledged other people as individuals, but then gets them to think as a team.  People start choosing roles and try to protect each other.  We usually win.

It’s just a game, and playing well is usually fun and rewarding, no matter which team wins.  But the next time you feel like you’re trying to herd cats, the same technique might help.

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