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Review of The Chessboard and the Web

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Title: The Chessboard and the Web

Author: Anne-Marie Slaughter

Publisher: Yale University Press

Copyright: 2017

ISBN13: 978-0-300-21564-9

Length: 296

Price: $26.00

Rating: 92%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

The first step to winning a debate is to define the terms used to discuss the issue. In The Chessboard and the Web, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning for the U.S. Department of State, characterizes international relations as a series of interconnecting relationships. Rather than pursue a statist realpolitik strategy, she argues in favor of a cooperative, supportive approach.

Games in Theory and Practice

Dr. Slaughter starts her argument by comparing the traditional view of competition described by Thomas Schelling’s classic text on game theory, The Strategy of Conflict, with operations on a chess board. Chess is a zero-sum game, meaning that if I win, you must lose. Of the classic two-by-two matrix games that Schelling describes in his book, the game of Chicken comes closest to the risk of nuclear war. In 1950s teen movies, two boys drive at each other at high speed. The first one to swerve is the “chicken” and takes a small loss, but if neither swerves there’s a head-on collision and both players suffer a huge loss.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma, perhaps the best known of the classic games, demonstrates how a games payouts can be constructed to convince individuals to violate their best interests. The idea is that two criminals have been apprehended, separated, and offered a choice. If a criminal testifies against the other (defects) and the other refuses to testify against them (cooperates), the one who testified will go free and the other will go to prison for ten years. If both testify, they will go to jail for five years. If neither testifies, each will go to jail for one year. Even though the best choice for both criminals is to refuse to testify and serve a little time in jail, the fact they can’t communicate with each other means they can’t trust the other’s intentions. The penalty for unmatched cooperation is a long jail term while the other goes free, so the logical choice is for both to defect and accept a suboptimal outcome.

The third game Slaughter mentions, the Stag Hunt (also called the coordination game) allows for scenarios where two players can achieve better outcomes by cooperating than by competing. In the Stag Hunt, two hunters can choose to go after a hare or a stag. If a player goes after a hare, they will always get it and win one point. If both players go after a stag, they will each get three points. If one player chooses hare and the other chooses stag, the player choosing hare gets one point and the player choosing stag gets zero. Even with repeated play, it’s easy for players to fall into the trap of getting a steady payoff of one point per round without discovering that cooperation yields better results. As with all of the classic two-by-two games, the main limitation is the lack of communication between the players.

Networks and Connections

After introducing game theory, Slaughter describes networks and basics of network analysis in the context of international relations. For example, she mentions different measures of connectedness, such as the number of connections leading to and from a network node (its degree), the node’s place in the network (its centrality), and the number of times it serves as a connection between two other nodes (its betweenness). She then explores the strengths and weaknesses of the standard network topologies: star, hub-and-spoke, and mesh. Networks appear throughout international relations, whether among states (such as the European Union) or in non-governmental organizations and terrorist groups. Some networks are tightly interconnected (have a high density), while others are more sparse.

Slaughter describes several major types of international networks, starting with resilience networks. Resilience networks can serve as defense, recovery, and stabilization tools. Doctors Without Borders is one example of a networked organization that provides health care in recovery and stabilization roles. Task networks are similar to resilience networks in some respects, but one distinction is that they are temporary groupings assembled to complete work through cooperation, collaboration, or innovation. Cooperation comes with significant risks. If a partner defects, such as when an OPEC member nation produces more oil than its quota allows, then the strength of the network depends in large part on the effectiveness of punishments administered by other group members.

The final category of networks, scale networks, describe how solutions that work well in microcosm can grow. In a replication network, a solution can be repeated with little or no modification at a new location. One such network is the Global Alliance for Vaccination and Immunization (GAVI). GAVI coordinates transport and delivery of vaccines to vulnerable populations to help restrict the spread of disease. Finally, cumulation networks bring knowledge and expertise into a single entity. One example is GitHub, the online source code repository that programmers around the world rely on.

Network Power

As you might expect, Slaughter argues strongly in favor of a networked approach instead of following the realist’s emphasis on states with interests rather than allies. She cites former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s adoption of Joseph Nye and Suzanne Nossel’s concept of “Smart Power”, where states use all means at their disposal, from military power to trade, diplomacy, and foreign aid, to influence allies, institutions, and international norms. At some point the distinction between “smart power” and the traditional realist view becomes moot; realists use all of those tools as well, they just do so with different intentions.

Near the end of The Chessboard and the Web, Slaughter compares her liberal internationalist (she would say humanist) approach to Joshua Ramo’s “Hard Gatekeeping” (statist) approach. As she notes, the discussion has raged between proponents of a power-based foreign policy versus those advocating a values-based foreign policy for centuries. Her ideal scenario is an Open Order where states remain important and powerful but operate within an international network charged with “acknowledging and validating individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions not simply as state subjects but as actors in their own right through global networks.”

Conclusion

Foreign policy, diplomacy, and statecraft require careful planning and execution to advance one’s interests. As with all such debates, it’s a matter of striking a balance between a state’s interests and those of its allies, competitors, and neutrals. Advocates of the Hard Gatekeeping approach would argue that the “Smart Power” approach isn’t so smart because it would leave the U.S. exposed to defectors. Even so, I find Slaughter’s arguments in The Chessboard and the Web to be convincing if not quite compelling. States can benefit from well-applied connections, but deciding on the extent of that connectivity and exposure is a devilishly tricky prospect. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 50 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

When Goals Don’t Match Incentives

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Several months ago I wrote about how improv and business relationships can resemble some of the classic 2 x 2 games, such as Chicken or the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Improv and business have characteristics in common with other games, too.

My last post mentioned Mikhail Tal, one of the fiercest attackers in the history of chess. He specialized in knocking the position and his opponent off balance and winning in the resulting complications. Tal lost a lot of games in dramatic fashion, too, but his games were rarely boring.

You can’t make progress in an improv scene or business if you’re afraid to shake things up. Unlike in chess, where you face an opponent over the board by yourself, improvisers and business people have colleagues who are working with you toward a common goal. At least, that’s the ideal. You probably know what kind of disasters can happen when you and your colleagues aren’t all moving in the same direction. But why would team members work at cross purposes? One possible reason is that an individual’s incentives don’t align with the project goal.

As an example, suppose you’re a programmer tasked with shipping a product update one month from today. Further, assume your annual bonus and (possibly) continued employment hinge on releasing your code by the deadline. I can guarantee that you will do everything you can, including cutting every available corner if necessary, to get that software out the door 30 days from now. Doing so meets your objective of getting the software out the door, but does so at the expense of the company’s overarching goal of providing quality products to its customers.

Economists and game theorists call this practice suboptimization, where individuals focus on part of a process at the expense of the project as a whole. Chess players can suboptimize by trying to reach an endgame with very few pieces on the board, regardless of what the position calls for earlier in the game. Improvisers can suboptimize by “working on a character” or “finding a way to work a song into this scene” no matter what happens in a scene. And, as argued above, companies can make their employees suboptimize by setting incentives improperly.

I wish I had a good answer for the problem of suboptimization in organizations. It’s relatively easy for individuals to avoid it if they can identify the larger goals they’re working toward, but it’s hard for employees to consciously work in a manner that won’t be directly rewarded. If it’s a choice between getting paid and doing what’s best for the organization, I say take the money and work with your boss to restructure your incentives after you cash the check.

Chicken in Business

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In my previous post, I discussed the game of Chicken, where two kids in denim jackets and James Dean haircuts get into cars and drive toward each other at high speed. The first one to swerve loses, but there’s a real possibility neither one will blink and both will be hurt. If you’re an improviser, it often pays to be the one who blinks. Yes, you go with someone else’s ideas instead of your own, but the scene and show will be better for it.

In business, one of the most common ways to play Chicken is what’s called Schedule Chicken. In Schedule Chicken, managers face off against each other in a meeting room and none of them is willing to admit that they will not meet whatever obviously unrealistic deadline has been placed in front of them. Because they agreed to that schedule at the start of the project, whoever blinks will be blamed for causing the project to slip if they have to ask for more time.

Unrealistic schedules are deadly. In her Harvard Business Review article “How to Kill Creativity”, Teresa M. Amibile notes:

Organizations routinely kill creativity with fake deadlines or impossibly tight ones. The former create distrust and the latter cause burnout.

In business, it can be tough to say that you have no chance of meeting a schedule, regardless of how optimistic it might be. If the other managers or workers on a team say that they can make their deadlines with no problem, it means that you are the one causing the slip. Of course, it might be complete fiction that the other teams could have been ready in time, but if you’re the first one to admit that you won’t make it, you’re the one who gets the blame.

How you solve the game of Schedule Chicken depends on your corporate culture. Companies that follow a philosophy of not shipping until something is ready can reduce the possibility of Schedule Chicken, especially if they don’t set final deadlines until the project is well underway. For multiyear efforts, final deadlines and announcements should be kept out of the press as long as possible. Companies that use agile development and roll out small updates frequently avoid Schedule Chicken by shipping when the update is ready and not announcing times until the next increment is ready to go.

Written by curtisfrye

September 20, 2012 at 1:02 pm