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Zombies, Emergent Strategy and Leading in the Unknown.

Oct 24, 2023

Who would have thought that a seemingly frivolous exercise, which goes by the silly name “The Zombie Chair Game” could provide such profound insights into modern leadership paradigms? And yet it does. The game challenges a group to outmaneuver a slowly walking “zombie,” aiming to occupy an empty chair before the zombie can. It turns out that this simple activity offers a perfect microcosm of the challenges and opportunities presented by our rapidly changing, increasingly complex world.

While playing this game with our clients, I’ve observed something fascinating: attempts to develop a one-size-fits-all strategy almost always fail spectacularly. You might start off with the best-laid plans, but then, chaos inevitably ensues. Chairs topple, people stumble, and the zombie wins.

Traditional management thinking centers around the idea of control: If you can predict all variables, you can control outcomes. However, the speed and unpredictability of today’s business environment render this approach obsolete. It’s akin to the participants in the Zombie Chair Game trying to plot each move in advance. Not only does this become paralyzing, but it’s also wildly ineffective.

So, what works? Here’s where the magic lies. When players simply “go with the flow,” responding intuitively to the movements of their immediate neighbors, the group performs exceptionally well. There’s no grand master plan; the strategy emerges naturally from countless individual decisions made on the fly. And here’s the kicker: it works. The zombie rarely gets a seat.

This is a game of adaptation, of rapid decision-making, and—most importantly—of collective effort. It’s a reminder that, in a world in constant flux, adaptability and decentralized decision-making often trump rigid planning: Leaders, you’re not the conductors of an orchestra with sheet music; you’re the facilitators of a jazz ensemble, skilled at improvisation. Your job is to set the tone, establish the key boundaries, and let your team riff. You provide guidance and harmony but allow for free-flowing ideas that adapt to the ever-changing tune.

The Zombie Chair Game, in all its glorious simplicity, imparts a lesson in emergent strategy that every leader should heed. When the speed of change is exponential, when disruption is the norm, and when old playbooks no longer suffice—embrace the chaos. Lead in the moment, adapt, and remember: the best strategies often emerge when you least expect them. And sometimes, they even keep the zombies at bay. (via Pascal)