GMN2009: Playing

This post will be a little bit more “roaming through knowledge” than the usual.

Actually, it is part of a series, first published in May 2009.

But, following the dictum of somebody else, I will make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.

What is the point? Talking about ways of representing and forecasting the expected decisions of groups and individuals, and some projects that try to build a “model” of what we are and could be- be it our DNA or our brain.

And, while doing this, recalling some useful concepts that you can apply in whatever you do in your business and personal life- including when you are on the receiving end of the results of a model.

As usual- theory is converted into (hopefully) plain English, and the examples are from real life and experience in business, politics, technology- and their impact on personal and business life.


You want your model to work in reality, and therefore you have to assume that others have their own models.

It is a game. Like playing chess. Or the usual “prisoner’s dilemma”.

From models, we will move to the interaction between models- and between different decision paths within a model.

A down-to-earth introduction to the game theory.


Moving from designing the game to using the game implies adding a completely different set of skills.

You will need to learn how to manage the evolution of the dynamics between the players– be it a simple game, a real negotiation, the management of a major organizational change, a merger, or a political campaign.

Playing games implies being able to constantly feed back into your game the results of what you are doing.

From designing the game, we will move to evolution– something that is not necessarily following your strategy- but that you have to cope with.

Before playing, let’s talk about who you are. Did you create the game?

Charles Darwin? Evolution?

Well, the first step before playing a game is- evolving.

Whatever you were before, you have to become a player.

If you were the originator of the game- get over it.

And this is even more important when the game is called “strategy”.

You can recognize a strategist that did not evolve from the “let’s discuss” to the “let’s do” approach.

You can spend all your life strategizing- and never doing a single thing.

But if you weren’t the creator… you need players, not creators.

And that includes all the consultants (internal and external, formal or informal) that advised you on defining the game.

Whoever defines the rules of your game should not be around to keep sitting on the fence and telling you what was the real reason for this or that rule.

If you read the previous section (GMN2009: GAMES), you know that any activity can be structured as a game: rules and roles and results.

The keyword is: structure.

Also if you just meet and then see what happens- that’s a game with a basic rule: negotiate the rules as you go.

That’s also why you need to avoid converting a structured activity into a constant open-ended discussion.

“Brainstorming” is an interesting approach.

And, personally, I keep using it whenever possible. And whenever needed.

Whenever the point is extracting information from a group of people that requires interaction between them do decide what is relevant, I set up a brainstorming session whose “seed” is the focus defined with the stakeholders, the general purpose of the activities.

In some other cases, you just need to have everybody execute what they are expected to do.

If you are in charge of the game, or negotiation, or project- your main role is managing the progress from the beginning to the end in the best way to produce the results agreed, within the constraints that you received.

But you are not the creator: you are one of the players.

The difference is quite relevant- if you are defining the game, you can solve any misunderstanding in applying the rules by defining a new rule- or by applying changes.

But when you are inside the game, you have to assume that the rules are set, and that changing the rules requires the agreement of all the (relevant) players.

“Relevant”: because the less structured the game (the weaker the rules), the more the specific balance of power between the players can influence the actual dynamics.

As will be discussed later, the interaction, the dynamics of the relationships between the players and their expectations influence the outcomes of the game.

But, before moving onto the dynamics, let’s discuss about the ethics of game playing

I hinted above about a relationship between the weakness of the game rules and the balance of power between the players.

Sorry for the terrible wording- but, if you think about it, it is just common wisdom.

It is the old rule: whenever the rules are not set, the better able to build a consensus win.

There is an interesting corollary, often ignored: rules make sense if the culture of the organization playing the game is consistent with the rules.

If your team is used to work without rules, you can write any complex set of rules- but the other members of the team know that they just need to ignore you and your rules long enough, and the game will be open again.

As discussed in a previous section, adopting a methodology (if you want- a set of rules about which games are generally allowed- rules about the acceptable rules, or “metarules”) is but one step.

But ensuring that the methodology is applied requires the acceptance by all the parties involved of the relative roles.

The alternative?

You can use the “carrot/stick” method to elicit a positive reinforcement of the positive attitude toward compliance with your methodology (the carrot), and reduce (the stick) the degrees of freedom available to team members on activities (by increasing the oversight or adding further “bureaucratic” steps), to discourage non-compliance.

Some managers that I met try to build a “Pavlovian” reflex, i.e. to generate via repetition an instinct that de-facto removes any degree of freedom.

Given a certain stimulus, the reaction is always the same.

A simplistic approach- because the side-effect is that, along with the degree of freedom, you remove also the judgement from the team member.

(s)he will instinctively focus on the main attribute that generates a positive or negative effect, and become oblivious to other changes in the environment that could require either an adaptive response, or at least a notification that something might have been changed in the environment.

If you look around the Internet for “ethics” and “management”, you get… 23.800.000 pages 😀

My favorite book on ethics? “A Theory of Justice”, written in 1972 by John Rawls.

He wrote also a revised edition, as a riposte to some criticism- but, frankly, it is the main concept that matters.

My suggestion: read it, and then criticize it- or ignore it; but, in a twist of fate… you will be conditioned in spotting “ethical troubles” when playing games, moreover when the rules are weak and the environment unstable.

Yes, a book inducing a Pavlovian reflex 😀

The main guideline: consider the “fairness” of the twist that you apply to the playing of the game.

And this becomes even more important when, from considering the rules, you move onto the playing itself.

As you will need to monitor and control the dynamics via negotiations

It is obviously different if you are in charge of the game, or if you are just one of the players.

But, as I wrote recently to a friend who asked about “decision-making in circles, you can influence the overall game by influencing the circle of players you belong to, and then let the results of your own circle influence what other circles are producing at a higher level.

I wrote circles. I should have written “ringisho”:

A ringi-sho is an approval/signature document that Japanese employees create to obtain approval for new projects, expenditures, or process changes. Once created, the ringi-sho is submitted for signature to the relevant parties in ascending hierarchical order. In other words, if the signatures of an assistant manager, a manager, and a director are all necessary, the ringi-sho will be submitted first to the assistant manager, then to the manager, and finally to the director. (from The Everything Japanese Guide

I started being interested in Japanese decision making in large companies belonging to groups (the “Keiretsu”) in late 1980s, when I was applying to my employers’ customers on decision support systems (henceforth, DSS) some theories, to create models that were mirroring the decision process that was really used inside the company.

Why? Because creating DSS models requires having at least a basic set of the “game rules”- which data are processed by the model and how, to produce which results- and how the results could actually influence the decision-making process (more about this “feed-back” cycle later in this section).

So, building a prototype that had been built by consensus by the relevant parties resulted in faster start of the execution.

The main reason is simple: if you build a model with no ideas- everyone sees what the previous contributors have told, and feels compelled to contribute something different. And then you get back to the beginning. And so on. And so on…

You do not believe it? Well, try brainstorming with somebody. Then, take the results, and tell to one of their colleagues- what do you think? how would you describe how do you work? This is an example from your colleagues, but feel free.

The best you can get? That each contributor will monitor first “who” contributed before- and decide according to the relative status.

That’s why often a decision negotiated at the top was never implemented. The manager providing the “rules” wasn’t really involved in the operations.

The ringisho approach is the other way around- making a choice can take forever, but as each “organizational layer” approves before passing the results up, the decision taken at the top is based on the collective consensus from the bottom up- and the commitment from the bottom up.

Therefore, if nothing changes… as soon as approved from the top, it can be implemented.

At least, this is the theory. But, at least in my “model building” activities, it worked.

Because the dynamics of the game is linked to details that might not be necessarily visible or available at the top.

If you read again this segment (from the bold label down), you will recognize something.

A negotiation.

When you are inside a game playing (at least a real-life one), all the parties involved are actually negotiating between themselves the evolution of the game.

Again- the more formalized the rules, the less the real need of an ethical framework of reference- because the rules contains the ethical framework of the originators of the game.

So, if the rules reduce the degrees of freedom… to play the game you are required to comply.

But, whatever your environment, the simplest set of rules is the one that most suits the purposes of the game.

To get down to earth. let’s consider a real negotiation that I was involved in (I “omit” some details to avoid identifying the parties involved).

Two parties, each one with a need.

A needed to open a new market.

B needed something to differentiate the company from its competitors.

When I was appointed negotiator (as I knew both the parties) I said clearly: if I negotiate, I have to know if I will be neutral or doing that on behalf of one of the parties involved.

I was asked: how do we understand if you are really neutral- I said: whatever other role I play with either of you in other activities, you have to consider if you believe that I can focus ethically on the negotiation; if so, I am an impartial negotiator if either I do it “pro bono” or I am paid by both parties.

This being the case, you will need an advisor each.

Otherwise, I will support the side that will take my services.

It is actually my generic “negotiator” speech, that I use whenever there could be a confusion or overlapping of roles.

In some negotiations, I was asked to side with one party, on others I was paid by both and asked to be impartial, in others I was asked to be paid by one, but be the “Devil’s Advocate” for both.

If A wants to open the market, B has a certain leverage; but it could easily become a “chickening out” game- the first one to concede terrain loses.

I prefer, whenever possible, and whenever a longer term relationship needs to be built, to adopt a more constructive approach.

Another book, that I discovered by chance in one of my then-weekly visits to a bookshop, “Getting To Yes”, written by Roger Fisher, William Ury, Bruce Patton.

The title is terrible: it sounds like one of those “become a leading CEO in two weeks” cookbooks 😀

But the book is actually one of the fastest and best structured introductions to managing “principled negotiations”.

Which means: you are not trying to “trick into agreement” the other party- usually, not because you are a saint- but because it is in your own best interest that the others do not feel cheated five minutes after signing off the agreement.

The key issue is: identify the motivation.

If you know why each party (including your own) is involved in a negotiation, you are one step ahead in the game, and will probably avoid wasting time.

Let’s get back to the real negotiations.

One question I always asked to whoever I represented: before putting anything on the table, I need to know.

Because I cannot help to negotiate if my over-enthusiastic customer jumps ahead and destroys the negotiation dynamics by dumping on the table something absolutely indefensible.

Any change during a negotiation requires that the acceptance to the change is prepared.

In a negotiation, often perception is reality.

It goes along with the activity: if you want to focus on the real value added for each party by completing the negotiation, you have also to consider that any change has to be introduced if and when it is the right time.

More than once it happened that somebody around the table was so happy with the progress made… that, instead of telling me what they wanted to add, they tried to add “a cherry on the cake”- pity that instead of the cherry it was a full tree!

A negotiation is a game, with certain rules associated by the concept of negotiation- and others that are specific to each negotiation.

But why you need to negotiate on the rules, if the rules are set?

Because you have to consider the side-effects of actions

If your game is an artificial game, say a videogame or a card/board game, you have always the option of ending it.

But if your game is, actually, something that you are doing or negotiating, you need to know something more.

You need to constantly monitor not only what you are doing, but what is a result of what you (or other players) have done that could actually influence further decisions about the game.

Sometimes, the side-effects of the actions within the game could influence the nature or existence of the game itself.

As an example, consider a funny (now, not then) result of the non-compliance with some “rules”.

Long ago, (I cannot be more specific, as this would identify the project ;)), a company I was working with decided, for a major customer, to create a videodisc with all the documentation and training material.

At the time, those videodiscs were produced only in Japan.

So, we received the order to plan activities so that there would be a freeze in documentation after a certain cut-off date.

Everybody agreed and signed off.

But signing is something- doing is something else.

When the pre-print book coming with the videodisc arrived (the videodisc was closed, but the manual layout could be “prettified”), the senior executive in charge of the activity was proudly showing it to some people.

A business analyst dropped by, skimmed through the pages and started saying- oh, but this one changed. And this one too. And this one has not been like that for a long time… and so on.

The senior executive? First, apoplectic, then, he made me think of that poem “S’i’ fosse foco, ardere’ il mondo” (if I were fire, I would burn the world) 😀

Therefore, playing the game without respecting all the rules, or “cheating”, generated an expensive side-effect, and produced a change in both the rules and the game itself.

But an interesting side-effect is “embedded” in any game: what you do is what you know.

When you write down or define the rules, you do not necessarily have the experience required to play the game.

And, as in any activity, once you apply the rules by playing through the game, you understand the rules better than by just reading a booklet.

That’s why any game, whatever its purposes, should be followed, as discussed in previous sections, by a lessons learned

I give you an example: training somebody into a position.

My favorite approach is to create an activity where I can have the person to be coached tag along, and then organize so that, eventually, I am the one tagging along.

The simplest case is my “train the trainer” approach for the introductory course on model building.

First, I had the relevant people do something straightforward: read the manuals while doing all the usual tutorials, and, if time allowed, assign them a small activity.

Then, we had a pre-training discussion on who the training was going to happen.

Next step: they were sitting during the presentation away from me, and looking at both me and the customers and colleagues attending the training, until the workshop, when they helped in minor activities.

After the training session, we had a debriefing brainstorming: what happened and why. And they had free range on firing on my any question.

Next step: they would join me, and cover a simple part of the training session, along with part of the workshop.

Again: debriefing etc.

Final step: I was their assistant, and had them deliver the training, followed by a debriefing, during which I asked them to tell me what they thought happened and what should have happened.

An important part of this “game playing”, after learning the lessons is understanding: do the rules still apply?.

Let’s get back to the videodisc example.

The rules had been ignored. And we had to change the rules.

Simply keeping to the basic rule (a cutoff date is a cutoff date) had become meaningless.

In fictional games you can play again according to the same rules- actually, you have to.

But in real-life games, including applying methods and processes, it is important to use the lessons learned to help whoever defines the rules to improve and evolve the rules.

A real-life game needs evolution to be a natural part of its existence.

Actually: when I was designing and delivering methodologies and, more recently, organizational charts and processes, collecting information about the results and monitoring the “hidden evolution” (or “mutation”) was part of the activity.

And was planned inside the game itself.

Because to identify the lessons learned you need at least two elements: to collect what happened, and to collect when this happened.

In my experience, a third rule should be added: that this collection must be done “on the spot”.

Somebody recalling months later what happened is usually applying her/his own personality in viewing, with 20/20 insight.

If you want to collect what really happened, without any “interpretation”, you have to teach each player to keep a log.

And how do you use this collection of incidents and (possibly) solutions? To generate the evolution

An interesting issue is that often I see that evolution is considered a one-dimensional issue.

Worse. A binary issue: either you have it, or you do not.

My short summary on evolution within games is that you should classify what you collected into at least four types (I apologize to Charles Darwin for my partial misuse):

changes within a single rule, e.g. to simplify or identify new byproducts
changes outside the scope of the game that influence the game
dead-end mutation
changes that occur during the game- but that, at the end, are revealed to be irrelevant
winning evolution
changes that could actually improve the game

Whenever you define rules to be applied in a real-world game, the application of the game modifies the game, as the game interacts not only in itself, but also with other games- with its environment.

And mutual influences could result in changes applied also to other games.

Incidentally: each player within a game has a purpose, but also some “personal” rules that (s)he is supposed to follow.

These rules define the “role” assigned to each player.

I had projects where more than one project manager was assigned, and projects were everybody believed to be the project manager.

But, in the end, a game has rules, purposes, and… roles.



When you create a story, you have roles.

And every role, has a script that is consistent with the role.

The behavior has to be consistent with:

  • game
  • execution of the game
  • expectations from anybody you interact with

But the interesting part is: if you properly define the roles, you can script also the expected behavior of other participants without their knowledge.

From the concept of “script”, to the definition of roles and their interaction in real-life situations, a needed addition to the discussion about models, change, planning and all the associated activities.


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