Chuck E. Cheese vs. Pirate Ship: Competitive vs. Generative Advantage

September 13, 2012 / General /

By Robert E. Quinn

I recently read a book called Betterness by Umair Haque (2011), in which the author speaks of the difference between two business concepts, competitive advantage and generative advantage.

Competitive advantage is about “capturing value for today.” A company that gains competitive advantage may be profitable, but it may not be creating real wealth.

Generative advantage is different. Haque says organizations need to practice a new social contract in which they say, “Through the act of exchange, I’ll ignite your human potential. You will become better—fitter, smarter, closer, wiser, tougher, humbler, truer, wealthier—in terms that add up to a life meaningfully well lived.”

The organizational ambition of generative advantage must be the expansion of human potential. Such an organization is saying, “We honor you. We want you to get the most out of what we offer. We see you not merely as mute, captive consumers, but as humans with dignity, will, power, and agency—the capacity to live up to your higher potential.” Such an organization will have generative advantage.

Last week we celebrated my grandson’s birthday in grand style. On Saturday we went for a ride on a pirate ship. On Monday we went to Chuck E. Cheese. The contrast was instructive.

On Saturday we set out with a two-, five- and a seven year-old aboard the pirate ship. Before embarking, each child was asked to show his or her muscles, and each was given a pirate name tag. The children then had their faces painted and put on pirate clothes. The 20 or so children then got in a circle and learned to yell pirate words at Captain Ruby and Captain Rusty, who were inspiring, humorous, and joyfully expressive in everything they did with the kids. The children marched to the ship, learned the safety rules in a minute, and then set sail.

Every moment was a moment of full engagement. We found a lost treasure map, pulled a bottle out of the sea with a message in it, used water cannons to shoot Blackbeard out of his small boat, found the key to his treasure chest, and located and pulled his pirate booty of the sea. Each child got a part of the treasure, and then we pulled a bottle of pirate “grog” from the water.

At the end of the trip, the children spontaneously approached their parents and sincerely thanked them for giving them the experience. The rest of the day, at home, they talked about pirates and played pirate games. I found out that during the warm months, this business runs six trips a day, seven days a week, and they are always full.

On Monday morning we went to the local swimming pool. A number of young families were there. My son-in-law made sure to tell each set of parents about the pirate ship and how it was one of the best things the family ever did. Each couple paid careful attention.

The pirate ship business is thriving. Why? Because its crew provides something that is rare and highly valued. They provide a meaningful experience through action learning. The children feel safe and stimulated, cared for and challenged. The kids are fully engaged from start to finish. Because they are fully involved, their imaginations are completely stimulated. They learn at an accelerated rate. They leave with a vast number memories and new ideas in their heads. They feel great. Delighted parents then spread the word and new families show up to buy the same memorable, meaningful experience.

That’s not always how things go for child-oriented venues. On Monday afternoon we went to Chuck E. Cheese restaurant, which offers a plethora of carnival-style games and a kid-friendly menu. We were greeted efficiently by a young woman who went through a checklist of what would happen. She was doing her job, but she was not engaged. We seemed to be one more family in a long day of families. There was no personal connection of any kind. The kids received tokens and then enjoyed using them to interact with machines that mechanically rewarded them with tickets. Then we went to the birthday area and engaged in a ritual programmed by videos. The young woman stood next to Chuck E. Cheese and the two of them waved and wiggled as the video dictated. We did a few other well-organized things, cashed in our tickets, and went home.

The kids were pleased with their experience at Chuck E. Cheese and would probably be glad to go back. But my son- in-law said, “I have always been a fan of Chuck E. Cheese, but after the pirate ship, it just does not measure up. In fact, I was miserable most of the time.” His wife challenged this, and he confirmed his position.

This led to an interesting discussion. I asked him to compare the two experiences. He pointed out that the “pirates” Ruby and Rusty were fully and creatively engaged with the children. They invited the kids into the experience, and the children joined them in cocreating it. The children’s imaginations were fully stimulated. They were developing and learning while also having fun.

You could characterize both businesses as successful, but they are different. Chuck E. Cheese is driven by a mechanistic metaphor of entertainment. The entire experience is workmanlike, and the employees become like machines. The employees are like workers everywhere who do their jobs by rote. If such employees are organized well enough, customers may actually have a good experience.

Mechanistic organization can go a long way, as it does at Chuck E. Cheese. Without question, it provides competitive advantage. Yet the pirate ship, in contrast, is driven by an organic metaphor. The purpose is to cocreate meaningful experience. The employees are an extension of that organic metaphor. They love what they are doing, and they stimulate imaginative learning. The pirate ship provides generative advantage.

Which do you think these children will remember for the rest of their lives? Which one will their parents recognize as resonant and meaningful?