Ordinary People, Extraordinary Decisions (The Story of the Oregon Trail Game)

Months ago Heather Ishikawa, a co-author “Now You’re Thinking!” said something that really stuck with me:  “If you can change the way you think, you can change the world.”

The statement still gives me goosebumps.

Since then I have read hundreds of stories about ordinary people who challenge the standard way of thinking, break down barriers, try something new, and make the world a better place.  It’s time to honor those individuals.

This is an example of an ordinary person who made an extraordinary decision that changed the world.

Our first story is about Don Rawitsch, the creator of the Oregon Trail computer and video game.  Don was a student teacher in 1971 struggling to teach his students in a low-income area of Minneapolis about the importance of the Oregon Trail.  He had dressed up as historical figures to tell the students about the adventure, but felt he needed to take the lesson a step further.  On the floor of his apartment, he created a board game that the students could play to understand the day-to-day challenges of the journey.

When Don’s roommates (Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann) came home, they were impressed but thought it could be even better.  They had each only taken a few computer programming courses, but thought it would be a great computer game.  In a matter of days, the first iteration of the Oregon Trail was created and was a huge success.  Despite it’s clunky nature (there wasn’t even a computer monitor back then) and single-player functionality, students lined up to play and learn about the historic event.

As a child of the 80′s myself, I clearly remember the excitement of “computer day” when we got to play Oregon Trail for an hour.  I remember learning to strategize and plan by buying supplies at the store, deciding how long to travel vs. rest, when to hunt (and how much), and whether to caulk my wagon or ford the river.  I remember members of my party dying of measles, dysentery, and exhaustion.  The message was brought home when that individual’s name was scrawled on a tombstone along the trail.  Not only did I learn what an amazing feat that travel was, but I would argue that the Oregon Trail video game was the first game that helped me build decision making skills.

And it all started with a student teacher trying to teach a group of poverty stricken students about an amazing historic event. 

Don Rawitsch was an ordinary person who thought differently, and changed the world.  He didn’t stick to the lesson plan.  He didn’t use the notes and activities handed down by teachers before him.  He didn’t limit himself by the lack of resources and opportunities available to his students.  He challenged the status quo.

He changed the world with the most widely distributed educational game of all time.  Between 1974 and 2011, 65 Million copies have been sold.  This week, the Oregon Trail became available for play on Facebook.

“If you can change the way you think, you can change the world.”  It’s that simple.

Do you remember playing the Oregon Trail video game?

To read the full story of how the Oregon Trail video game was invented, click here.

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Research Shows Better Decision-Making = More Money!

Harvard Business Review conducted research with Bain & Company where they surveyed executives worldwide from 760 companies, most with revenues exceeding 1 billion to understand how effective those companies were at making and executing their critical decisions. This 2010 research showed that decision effectiveness and financial results correlated 95% or higher for every country, industry, and company size in the sample. The companies that were most effective at decision making and execution generated total shareholder returns nearly 6 percentage points higher than those of other firms.

The research found that, “a companies value is no more (and no less) than the sum of the decisions it makes and executes. Its assets, capabilities, and structure are useless unless executives and managers throughout the organization make the essential decisions and get those decisions right more often than not.”

Based on their research, the article suggests that it is important to sync an organizational structure and the organization’s decision making approach.

The article outlined 6 steps to focus on when aligning an organization with decision making.

1.      Be clear about which decisions are most important (Recognize and confirm assumptions)

2.      Figure out where in the organization those decisions need to be made (Evaluate the information)

3.      Organize your structure around sources of value

4.      Figure out the level of authority your decision makers need and give it to them

5.      Adjust other parts of your organizational system to support decision making and execution

6.      Equip your managers to make decisions quickly (Make sure that your decision allows your managers to be empowered)


How do you ensure decision-making alignment within your organization?


Editor’s Note:  Heather Ishikawa is a co-author of Now You’re Thinking! and the National Sales Director for Pearson TalentLens.  She is a career human resources professional with extensive experience in training, selection, organizational development, executive coaching, leadership development, team-building, and critical thinking skills training.  She holds a Master’s degree in Organizational Management and can be contacted at heather.ishikawa@pearson.com.

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