025 – The Last Move – a little bit of game theory for your projects
Here’s an episode inspired by the mathematical study of Game Theory! Not only can “moving last” (or latter) put you in a strong strategic position, but can also make you a better listener. We’ll also talk about some of the downsides of “sequential” turns in meetings, and how to keep that from stifling honest feedback using the Delphi method.
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What is Game Theory? [6:36]
Game theory is the study of interactions between parties in a competitive environment.
- It’s a Branch of Mathematics, but it applies so much to human interaction. It could be sociology or psychology.
- It helps you stop and think about possible outcomes for situations and work your way backward to make better decisions.
- If you are an Isaac Asimov fan, think of it as the possible forerunner of Hari Seldon’s science of Psychohistory, which basically lets him calculate and manipulate human civilization for millennia, because he can calculate what people will do in certain situations.
It’s an interesting game that will allow you to calculate what could happen in the future and set optimal conditions so you can get to where you want to go.
In today’s episode, we’ll discuss a couple of concepts from Game Theory which you could use on your projects.
Example – The Prisoner’s Dilemma
You have two people arrested for a crime. It doesn’t really matter if they did it or not, but the police have no evidence. It’s one prisoner’s word against the other. If we apply game theory to this situation, we can calculate that there are three possible outcomes:
- If they both keep their mouths shut, they both get off
- BUT, if one blames the other and the other keeps their mouth shut, the blamer gets off, and the other goes to jail for 5 years
- If both blame each other, they both go to jail for 5 years
Each player is going to play to his or her advantage. And they are going to assume that the other person is going to play to their OWN advantage. Since they are going to end up blaming each other, they are both going to jail for 5 years.
The Last Move [10:35]
While some projects may feel like you’ve been sent to jail for 5 years, there are more positive ways to use some of the tools Game Theory provides, one of which is the idea of the last move.
When you play a game that is SEQUENTIAL, who has the advtage- the person who moves first or the person who moves last?
What we usually think intuitively is that the first mover gets the most advantage. And this makes sense – first off, the starting block has an edge in getting to the finish line first. Plus, the first person to move in checkers is already one move ahead.
But if you think about it, in a sequential game, the first mover can have the least advantage. The last person to move in each turn already know how all the previous players are going to move, and can respond appropriately. Moving last ultimately gives you an advantage, because you can analyze the moves and strategies of others before making your own decisions.
Imagine you are going into a funding meeting; you and two other PM’s. You have the opportunity to choose the order everyone presents to the board to try to get funding for your project. What order do you choose?
You will most likely choose that they present to the board first so you are able to see where they are strong, and not only present your case with the knowledge of their arguments, but maybe even address or undercut them in your own.
Managing the Effects [17:45]
This whole “last move” idea is predicated on a couple things:
- Everyone knows and can see each other’s moves and respond accordingly
- Everyone takes turns SEQUENTIALLY
Depending on if you want to use this “game” play or not, you may choose to manage the interaction through facilitation, or manage it away completely.
Let’s say you are the CEO of your organization. You need to work-up your new 5-year strategy, so you bring in your top executives. Do you speak first or last?
If you speak first as CEO, you state your opinion, “Here is what I think we should do over the next 5 years, what do you guys think?” Everyone is thinking DEFENSE! They are not coming up with ideas so much as coming up with responses to the boss’s ideas.
If you choose to facilitate and let everyone go in turn, you can listen to each one and then you can form your opinion based on what you heard without the concern that your opinions have impacted the team’s thoughts.
However, while you as the CEO can wait until last, all the other politically-minded executives in the room are calculating their response to the people who spoke before them. So, it’s still not necessarily truly open dialogue. So, as the CEO you have to be mindful of this situation and facilitate it by questioning opinions, managing the order of speakers, making sure everyone gets a turn, etc. The meeting facilitator use this power to their own goals. They can also short-circuit this entire effect using a technique called Delphi.
Delphi is a technique where you solicit anonymous feedback, collate them, then share the whole thing with the group to discuss as a team. This way, you can get less biased and more honest feedback from all the stakeholders who might otherwise be afraid to share their opinion – or affected by the opinions of others in a brainstorming session.
By speaking with stakeholders individually or soliciting feedback anonymously, each person gets their own opportunity to be the ‘last mover’.
If you listened to our show with Sheila Morago on Stage Direction in the Boardroom, that’s one of the key concepts discussed. We can go our stakeholders one at a time or in small groups and soliciting their move from them. This way, we can plan our reaction, and how to coach others to react.
Game Theory is good for getting the strategic advantage, but it’s also about being a good listener. If you sit and keep an open mind so you can respond appropriately, you are being a good listener, and not just waiting for your turn to speak. Your turn to say something may become totally irrelevant once you understand everyone else’s ‘move’.
You may be in trouble if:
- You are sitting in a meeting, waiting for your turn to speak, rather than listening to the other parties and keeping your mind open to changing based on their points.
- You don’t know or cannot understand the other “players’” moves. Stop the conversation and ask.
- You are non-sequential. If everyone is barking at once, nobody can listen.
- You were the first mover, and the last mover has the option of picking a chain-saw.
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