The future of Careers: From Serpents & Ladders to Pac-Man

I must confess since I was a little girl, I’ve been in love with board games. I have such wonderful memories of my family and I sitting together around the dinner table laughing and playing games. But while board games can be fun and entertaining, what I like most is their ability to bring people together and perhaps even teach us important lessons about life.

People fall into the trap of thinking that games are all about winning – but that’s just not the case. With games, and indeed in life, sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t. Life is full of ups and downs, triumphs and disasters, love and loss. Whether it’s joy or pain, it all contributes to our journey from childhood to adulthood. It is not about winning, but rather about enjoying the experiences and surprises that life hurls into our path. And anyway, what is winning really?

In the corporate world, for a long time, we have made the same mistakes. Organisational models have been designed in a way that encourages a competitive mindset around winning. A system where there is an end destination to be reached for a select few “winners”. No wonder so many people experience intense dissatisfaction or lack of motivation at work. According to Gallup, only 15% of employees are engaged at work – and while the word engagement might be difficult to quantify, just imagine what would be possible if that number was significantly higher.


Originally known as Moksha Patam, Snakes and Ladders is an ancient board game regarded today as a worldwide classic. The set-up is simple; a large grid with individual squares that players must pass through and scale vertically before reaching the hallowed land of the finishing square. Along the way, you encounter ladders which spring you upwards or snakes that send you sprawling down. It is not a game science or strategy, but more a game of pure luck, controlled by fate and the roll of a dice.

In the corporate world, career progression has long been characterised by a similar format to Snakes and Ladders. The career game is built around an endless number of constrained boxes along with numerous ladders leading up to the exalted upper echelons of the business world. All participants begin the game at the lowest level before commencing their gruelling path. Sometimes the requirements needed to scale the ladders seem clear, but more often than not, they are far from transparent and often feel more a matter of luck than anything else.

This approach at least had some logic for stable and unchanging environments when most companies used a standard hierarchical pyramid structure – but not anymore. Every day, organisational structures are becoming more fluid and agile. Those fixed boxes on the board are now constantly changing or even disappearing, making it hard for employees to target any specific role or position. The board has been transformed into a confusing maze with employees stumbling through with greater and greater uncertainty. There is a sense of feeling lost and alienated, and if things don’t change, these issues are going to become exasperated even further. According to Accenture, only 32% of employees can picture themselves in a future role in their current organisation.

Our frantic vertical clambering may have worked in the past, but now looks increasingly out of date. In 2020 we experienced not only radical shifts in how we do business but perhaps more than ever it opened our eyes to our own lives and the kind of game we want or should be playing. A career path system that has for too long encouraged competition, which is neither transparent nor inclusive to all and where winning becomes a matter of increasing your salary, gaining more power or getting a fancy title proceeding your name.

And it is not simply the younger generations looking for different ways to work and live. There has been a generalised emergence throughout humanity for the pursuit of fulfilment, happiness and most important, purpose. We all want more from our lives and our careers, and who can blame us?

But that doesn’t mean that the corporate world is the problem, on the contrary, professional life can be exciting, fun and self-fulfilling. Nevertheless, what has become abundantly clear is that organisations are in desperate need of a new game.


From a board game that dates back to the 13th Century, to one that has just celebrated its 40th birthday. Despite the rapid advances in computer game technology, Pac-Man remains one of the most popular arcade games of all time. Unlike Snakes and Ladders where participants must plod through static squares, Pac-Man allows people to roam freely (within the constraints of the maze that is). Instead of aiming for some distant finish line, participants careen happily through the maze, dodging ghosts, while grabbing power pellets to increase their Pac-Man’s strength. It is not a game of luck, but rather of mastery.

Modern and forward-thinking businesses need to be much more like Pac-Man than Snakes and Ladders. Professional life should be about growth, development and having fun. Not about winning or reaching the top of the pyramid. We need to encourage a system where all participants constantly experience a sense of achievement, not just a few. The fun and excitement should come from exploring, acquiring new power skills and doing what we are best at – and ideally, what we feel we are supposed to do on this earth. It should be about mastery, autonomy and purpose. We need to decouple salaries from positions and instead find a way of rewarding those who continually improve themselves. This may sound dangerously radical to some, but with companies like Unilever, Walmart and HSBC, already doing it, this is quickly becoming the new standard for success. And now, with AI and software like Gloat and Fuel50, it’s never been easier to set up this kind of system.

We all love snakes and ladders, but it’s evident that people are desperate for a new game. Currently 70% of employees leave organisations due to a lack of career development, while 2 out of every 3 millennials say they expect career development. Building agile careers and an open talent marketplace offers a new approach to improving employee retention and engagement while making more effective use of organisations’ internal resources to fill skill gaps.

Is your organisation ready to play a new game?

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