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Playing for food is different than playing for fun

by Mark P. McDonald  |  February 23, 2011  |  10 Comments

People ask about the differences between ‘the business’ and ‘IT’ and what people can do to eliminate them. It is a great question and unfortunately a persistent one. Usually when you have an issue that people recognize and work to resolve but cannot, there are deeper issues involved. I think that this is a big part of the situation here.

When I was asked this question at an IT leadership team meeting, I found myself talking about the difference between being playing for food and playing for fun. This is a description I learned in college to explain the different level of intensity you see in college sports versus professional sports. I was a pretty good football (grid iron) player in college and there was some discussion of an opportunity to turn pro, very slight I might add.  One of the reasons was a conversation I had with someone in the NFL, which went something like this:

“You like to play football?” he asked.

“Yes I do, I love the sport.” I replied (yes it sounds like a bad movie)

“That’s your problem, you’re playing for fun. You play because you like it, but you know that if it does not work out you have something else to do, there is something else.”

“Yeah so” I said, remember this was college and diction was not my strong point.

“Well as a professional you play for food. Playing for food is a whole lot different, there is nothing else, but football. You literally eat or starve based on what you can do on the field. There is nothing to go back to so failure – real failure is not just an option it’s a reality.”

The point was that things are different when your livelihood is on the line (playing for food) rather than just your assignment or product (fun). So the stakes are different, the level of competition is different, the intensity is different.

That conversation I had more than 20 years ago ran through my head as I was being asked the question about business and IT relationships.

IT largely plays for fun.  Fun in terms of the project is challenging, but the stakes of any one project do not equal the stakes of your job.

The business is playing for food.

Now yes I know its our jobs on the line and that we are professionals too, but consider what happens if a project does not work out, misses its deadlines, delivers a little less than its business case. IT professionals get a black mark, but by in large they get to keep their job.

The business, well if they miss it is likely that they will lose their job, just look at the turnover in the ‘food’ end of your company – sales, marketing, product development – and you can see that there is a real cost for failure.

So ask yourself this question when working with the business and they seem more earnest, urgent, or at the other extreme skeptical and non-committal. The reason they may be behaving that way has nothing to do with you or their attitude toward IT.

These attitudes could be an insulation mechanism, a way to isolate the project in the hopes that it can be managed and not come into the ‘food’ equation. For the simple reason that if it fails, they fail and lose their eating privileges, whereas IT chalks it up to experience and moves onto the next project.

The difference in what you play for may make all the difference in the relationship between the ‘business’ and ‘IT.”

Are you hungry, or just wanting to have some fun.

Category: it-governance  leadership  management  personal-observation  

Tags: business-and-it  business-management  leadership  personal-musing  

Mark P. McDonald
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Playing for food is different than playing for fun

  1. Graham Millar says:


    Let’s remove this false dichotomy of the business and IT. Please!

    In the case of an internal IT group – “I am the business”.

    We should all strive to be, say, business leaders with IT accountability. If we behave like a supplier we’ll be treated like one…the rest of OUR business are not customers they are colleagues!!! We each come to the table with EXPECTED skills and insights be they manufacturing, planning, quality, regulatory,…IT etc….

    In the case of an internal IT group where this dichtomoy is too often cited. let’s wake up and subvert this paradigm and take charge of the investments the company makes in IT instead of pandering to technology vendors or service providers.

    C’mon – let’s lead a new paradigm – a collective accountability for all investments involving IT. Who knows it may catch on broader than just IT…..?


  2. Mark McDonald says:


    Thanks for your comments and the quick post. I offered the analogy to start just such a discussion.

    By collective accountability, are you willing to put your job and your teams jobs on the line for a project that does not meet its business expectations and business case?

    The reason I ask this is that the business has to ‘make up the difference’ in their plans, deliver the number regardless of the success of the project.

    I agree that this dichotomy is useless, if you read prior posts — separating business from IT is a form of weak management. but what does a high accountability IT organization look like, particularly when other ‘corporate functions’ operate in a similar manner — HR or Finance being two other examples.

    Everyone talks about removing the false dichotomy, building bridges, implementing techniques like Business Relationship Management etc. but none of this addresses this or other fundamental differences between the two.

    I am trying to point out one of those differences in an attempt to find a deeper solution than saying we are all in this together, because we often have different stakes or steaks in the game.

    Now you can say that we have to have differences because IT is risky, otherwise IT would become soo conservative, which is fine, but then we are back to the dichotomy.

    You can also say that the differences are ok since the compensation structures are so radically different, but again the difference exists.

    I too would like to eliminate the difference because I think the distinction is counterproductive. We do that not by saying there should be no difference but by pushing on the deeper things that lead people to believe that there is one — one of those is the food/fun point I was trying to make.

    Welcome your thoughts on how we both play for food, because that is the platform that reflects reality and brings everyone together.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by joviann , Keith Ricketts and UK Technology News, Bromley Stone. Bromley Stone said: Playing for food is different than playing for fun: People ask about the differences between ‘the business’ and … […]

  4. Graham Millar says:


    Thanks for your reply – hope others join the fray. Unfortunately having just joined the network today I haven’t seen other posts.

    By Collective accountability I mean both the IT and Non IT parts of our business. This goes some way to counteracting the post project whines that one team didn’t hold up on their end and looks to weasel out- we’re all one team.

    I don’t actually recognise the food vs play presupposition except when I was a vendor.

    We all play for food – my take home pay relies on the delivery of me and my team.

    I’d put my payrise against my performance on delivery – that’s a basic expectation -and if I perform unsaitsfactoraily that is the first step in an improvement program or exit. Clearly this would also apply to projects that are “solely IT”, infrastructure and such.

    Business Relationship Management…ahh…does the very title not illustrate the dichotomy?

    I’m all for great relationships WITHIN our business and many of the generic BRM and other tools help that (but please let’s loose “account plans”!)

    Maybe the dichotomy has served the outsourcing process of functions like IT, HR and Finance….but those that remain need to be peers

    The deeper solution I believe is collective accountability for investments in change that involve IT. Collective alignment of the key goals of the company with that investment portfolio.

    Now let’s not lose sight that there is an expectation that we have not only a good business perspective and process understanding but broad /deep IT skills as well. As one SVP observed in our first meeting after I had been declaring my previous manufacturing experience. “You do know IT don’t you, because I don’t need [you to be] another Regulatory Scientist”.

    These are expected and acceptable differences lest we dilute everyone’s skill. We actually might want to promote these so we are seen as expert customers of IT.

    Finally if we think the problem is “out there”, that very thought is the problem. IT can lead this paradigm change


    Note: The book FruITion by Chris Potts is an excellent and novel illustration of these points.

  5. Robert says:

    I think you dichotomy is wrong in most cases for a different reason. Unless the managers are major owners of the company they too are in it for the fun. There is also the problem that there are very few paying jobs for any specific sport. There are many orders of magnitude more jobs in the spheres you are talking about. You may have to change companies but there are jobs out there.

  6. Mark –

    Good stuff as always.

    I think your analogy is spot on…at least for the way IT used to be and still is in most organizations.

    As I’ve argued for years, IT must step away from the project based mentality and move toward a more integrative approach to the business. This project based approach is what has allowed IT to ‘play for fun’ rather than for food.

    In the hundreds of projects I’ve been a part of, there’s been very little blowback on the IT group when projects go bad…and for the most part…very little reward for when the projects go well.

    Thanks for leading this conversation…I’m loving your focus on Reinventing IT.

  7. Mark McDonald says:


    Thanks for your comments and a response.

    Owners do play for food, in the most literal sense. But people in the business also play for food in the sense that if they do not meet their objectives, they loose their jobs. It the people with P&L responsibility, revenue responsibility, growth responsibility that I am thinking about. Compare managing a P&L to managing a budget is another way to think about this difference.

    You are right that in professional sports there are hundreds of people competing for a finite set of open spots. But that does not mean that the prospect of losing your job — even ones that are orders of magnitude more plentiful — lessens the impact or focus on food. Just consider the job market today and then add to it the situation where you are looking for a new job because you left your old one due to missing a goal. Just made the job search harder.

    The notion of playing for food vs. fun is offered as a way to recognize the difference between various attitudes and the context in which people work. In some cases, playing for food makes the player more conservative and unwilling to take chance on new ideas or technology. This is a frequent point raised by IT people. Alternatively, the need to produce results places a premium on people who can deliver results, draw together a team and achieve a goal through change. That is where playing for food makes the team serious and focused.

    Its not to say that one is better or worse than the other, just recognize this different context and think about how it influences relationships across the entire company.


  8. Graham Millar says:


    You know what – I think owners also play for fun too at times which is why I struggle with you analogy.

    Take Richard Branson for instance, after his first billion he’d probably be able to feed his familiy (and mine as well as it happens)…what drives him? Don’t think it is food or Lear jets

    This could apply to many top execs. Sure food is important…but so is contribution, leaving a legacy etc etc. And those are common human needs whch It isn’t excluded from.

    The great Tom Peters once challenged us to ask ourselves something like “Does what I do each day turn me on?”

    Perhaps if IT was more outcomes vs output focused we’d be received better by our senior non IT peers. But that is not exclusive to IT.


  9. […] People ask about the differences between ‘the business’ and ‘IT’ and what people can do to eliminate them. It is a great question and unfortunately a persistent one. Usually when you have an issue that people recognize and work to resolve but cannot, there are deeper issues involved. I think that this is a big part of the situation here.  (Read Full Article…) […]

  10. steve says:

    What we MUST avoid is the “Business of IT” subsuming/consuming the real business – it’s more than painful to see IT get carved-up into imaginary lines of Business and IT, one ‘managing’ the other, and an artificial internal marketplace evolving (bad choice of words since I see this as anything other than evolution). Stay focused and look at your budget and project cycle – I am sure we can determine how much we have to spend a year in advance, we know what HAS to be done, and we know we have a provision for S-T-H (‘stuff’ that happens), we know our appetite for risk and our capability for change so why o why do we need to ask internal IT for quotations; why do we spend hours nay, days trying to negotiate this down, why do we hire people after people to manage this marketplace; Keep an eye on business as usual; if there’s no value to be had either by innovation, or constructively contributing to change – then question why you went to college. If you SHARE the same agenda, the same data and the same vision of what success looks like then surely its just about who does what, when.

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