Win As Much As You Can

I wonder if we are playing a national game of Prisoner’s Dilemma or the variation I often use in leadership workshops, Win As Much As You Can (WAMAYC). Both exercises explore game theory, collaborative or competitive mindsets, and decision-making and group dynamics.

In WAMAYC four teams of individuals make a simple choice each round: X or Y. Scoring is determined by the distribution of choices among the four teams. Everyone gets $1 when all teams pick Y. Everyone loses $1 when all teams select X. When the team choices are mixed among X and Y, the teams choosing X win and the teams choosing Y lose. Some rounds are bonus rounds with the result for that round being multiplied.

Teams make their choices autonomously and can’t speak to the other groups except in the bonus rounds when they may send a rep to a quick conference. Some teams don’t send reps. Some reps agree with the others to have their team make a particular selection in the round that their teammates ultimately overturn. Trust and betrayal issues are not unusual.

Some teams take great delight in “screwing” the others by consistently picking X when all others select Y. Some teams position themselves as the most moral, always picking Y, preferring to go down with dignity rather than succumb to a competitive choice. And it is not unusual to score big by picking X in every round, then secure in their winning position choose Y in the final round where scores are multiplied by 10.

The debrief from this exercise always fascinates me as does the genuine dialogue (not purely partisan posturing) about the President’s proposed budget. If every team picks Y in every round, all four teams conclude the exercise with $25. For some, this equal distribution represents the ideal. For others, it causes them to wonder why even play if no one gets ahead.

Some participants say they chose so that everyone would at least end in positive numbers. The choices made in each round also get a great deal of attention. If all teams choose Y in round one, more collaborative choices seem to follow. But if a team chooses X in the first few rounds, the other teams often believe their stance is unchangeable.

Choosing X or Y may seem more black and white than forming public policy benefiting self or community, but the underlying dynamics are fairly similar. In every nation, in every organization, and in almost any situation, the same considerations are at play. In some respects, our current economic climate needs all of us to choose Y, making whatever purchases we can to help lift the overall financial environment. Some economists suggest that if we all choose X (save as much as we can and defer purchases), recovery is much more difficult.

In any given situation, how would you choose? What choices are the various stakeholders (think staff and volunteers, different departments, etc.) in your own organization making right now? And how can we all have a more transparent and trusting dialogue about the very real consequences at stake?