Fable Friday:  Herodotus, the Scythians and a Sully follow-up

Did you ever read anything by the great Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 B.C.)?  I recall in high school Latin we had to read some passages but I’ve forgotten most of it.  I was thinking this week of a quote from Herodotus regarding soothsayers, those who can predict the future.

Those who have this skill are much in demand in business today. Imagine if you could hire someone who could tell you with certainty at what wage your workers would go on strike.  You would be guaranteed to calculate the perfect wage.

But prognostication has its costs.  Here is what Herodotus writes in his History of the Persians:

“Scythia has an abundance of soothsayers who foretell the future.  They are judged by results.  The losers are loaded onto ox carts which are then set afire.”

Tough way to make a living.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedI mention this story as a prelude to my follow up on last week’s post regarding my friend Sully, who nailed the simulated business case study by doing the extra work to get it right. I asked you for your opinions about his methods.  Two of the respondents here on the blog suggested that Sully’s conduct was unethical. I’ll leave it to you to agree or disagree, but my own opinion, given the circumstances of the case was that there was nothing wrong with his conduct and that in fact he outshone everyone else because he played the game superbly.  My reasoning for my position has to do with the word “game.”

I’m very competitive by nature, so if you say to me, “We’re going to play a game and the only objective is that you make the most money you can,” I’m going to do everything I can to understand the game, the conditions, who my opponents are, who my teammates are and what are the best choices I can make to ensure victory.

So given that scenario, if you were Sully, wouldn’t you ask to distance yourself from those who make poor decisions by consensus?  Were I the professor, I would have granted Sully the same deal.  “Work by yourself if you like, but you’d better be right.”

And as for learning from the game creator some of the conditions of the game, if you were faced with the same type of problem in real business today, I hope you would do the research to eliminate problems you won’t have to deal with.

Sully was kind enough to reply to my post and here is part of what he said:

“The story is mostly true, although 35 years has given it some added color. I actually figured out the lowest wage to pay without a strike by isolating one worker and experimenting with his wage until he quit. From that I figured out where the masses would strike, and paid a penny above. Everyone else blindly overpaid because the unions periodically issued strike threats, which I also figured out were random and not related to actual wages.  The objective of the class was to make the most money at your company. It was a game and I played it well.”

Doesn’t sound to me as if he got the biggest score simply from what he learned from the game creator.  He also used quantitative methods to calculate wages, likely an approach his former teammates would not have considered.

Look at the bigger picture and ask yourself if you were either the Wharton professor who assigned the game, or the hiring manager of a company looking for problem-solvers, if you wouldn’t also put Sully at the top of your list. He’s always been there in my book.

Think Like Your Customer!

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About Gregory LaMothe
I teach people how to sell things. I own the company ActionSystems. Visit my website at www.actionsystemstraining.com.

2 Responses to Fable Friday:  Herodotus, the Scythians and a Sully follow-up

  1. Jeff Horton says:

    Today’s soothsayers are called economists. Show them that oxcart and torch and they’d be a little more circumspect with their predictions and advice.

  2. carly.meyer@pnc.com says:

    I love this one! The scenario with Sully and the logic behind it is
    superb. Know the game and play it well.
    Excellent advice.
    Love it.
    Carly Meyer
    Vice President
    Senior Relationship Manager
    PNC Bank, N.A. Wealth Management
    1600 Market Street
    Philadelphia, PA 19103

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