Tuesday, April 14, 2009 by Dave Blum

Happily, I finished reading “Rock, Paper, Scissors” this weekend and can finally wrap up my book report for you.  Interestingly, I learned in the afterward that the brilliant author —  Len Fisher —  is not, in fact, a game theory expert/mathematician by trade.  Turns out he’s a scientist— a physics PH.D. from the University of Bristol, England who won an “IgNobel Prize” for calculating the optimal way to dunk a doughnut (I kid you not).  That combination of  science and irreverence informs “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and makes it a highly-accessible read for a mathematics layman like me (more comfortable with scavenger hunt lists and corporate team building activities than John Nash and the Prisoner’s Dilemma).

So…Fisher’s goal with “Rock, Paper, Scissors” was to explore the latest findings from game theory and draw some conclusions about how this all applies to cooperation and collaboration.  Here are five of his top recommendations:

1)  Bring an extra player in:  If you are involved in a two-way game, bringing in another player helps in the balance of cooperation, especially if that third person proves to be a “non-cooperator” over whom the initial duo can share disapproval.  On the flipside, the extra player can also serve as a trusted third person who may hold a bond or enforce a contract.  The point is, including an extra person often helps.

2) Restrict your future options so that you will lose out if you defect on cooperation:  In other words, by making your position “vulnerable” in some way, you can often demonstrate that your commitment to cooperation is credible.  An example would be putting yourself in a situation where your reputation would suffer if you can’t deliver. . . or burning some bridges so that you can’t renege on cooperation once it’s been agreed upon.

3)  Offer trust: As a rule, if you offer trust, trust will often be returned, making cooperation that much easier.

4)  Maintain cooperative coalitions (with money, social or emotional rewards):  Create situations that ensure that people will lose out if they leave your coalition or form another one.

5)   Divide goods, responsibilities, jobs and penalties so that the result is envy free:  Fairness is a big deal in game theory (and in life); set up situations in which the process is agreed upon, transparent and fair.

These are just a few of the fascinating ideas explored in “Paper, Scissors, Rock.”  I highly recommend it.