How Powerful is Game Theory? Part 2 – A Powerful Tool for Strategic Planning?

In part 1 of this article, we took a skeptical look at game theory and the claims made by Frank Schirrmacher in his book Ego. So if game theory is not a satanic game that destroyed the Soviet Union and makes our economies a playground for selfish rational crooks, if it is, as I concluded, only one of many decision support tools available to managers, is it even the powerful tool described in management textbooks?

To get a clearer picture of the actual value of the concept, we will take a closer look at the advantages claimed for game theory in strategic planning and at the drawbacks directly associated with them:

  • Game Theory Studies Interactions with other Market Participants. In fact, game theory is the only commonly cited tool to explicitly study not only the effect of other market participants on one’s own success, but also the impact one’s own decisions will have on others and on their decisionmaking. However,
    Game Theory Focuses Unilaterally on These Interactions. In some special markets and for certain usually very large players, in-market interactions account for the majority of the business uncertainty, but most factors that most companies are exposed to are not interactive. The development of the economy, political, social or technological changes are not influenced much by a single company. If a tool focuses entirely on interactions and other important factors are hard to incorporate, they tend to be left out of the picture. With a highly specialized, sophisticated tool, there is always a danger of defining the problem to fit the tool.
  • Game Theory is Logical. The entire approach of game theory is derived from very simple assumptions (players will attempt to maximize their payoff values, specific rules of the game) and simple logic. Solutions are reached mathematically, usually in an analytical way, but for more complex problems, numerical approximations can be calculated, as well. But
    Game Theory is also Simplistic. Most of the problems for which analytical solutions are generally known are extremely simple and have little in common with real-life planning problems. Over the years, game theory has been extended to handle more complex problems, but in many cases even formulating a problem in a suitable way means leaving out most of the truly interesting questions. In most cases, information is much more imperfect than the usual approach to imperfect information, probabilistic payoff values, suggests. Most real problems are neither entirely single shot nor entirely repetitive, and often, it is not just the payoff matrices but even the rules that are unclear. Any aspect that doesn’t fit the logic of player interaction either has to be investigated beforehand and accounted for in the payoff matrix, or has to be kept aside to be remembered in the discussion of results. The analytical nature of game theory makes it different to integrate with other planning concepts, even other quantitative ones.
  • Game Theory Leads to Systematic Recommendations. Game theory is not just an analytical tool meant to better understand a problem – it actually answers questions and recommends a course to follow. On the other hand,
    These Recommendations are Unflexible. If a tool delivers a systematic recommendation, derived in a complex calculation, that recommendation tends to take on a life of its own, separating from the many assumptions that went into it. However, whichever planning tool is employed, the results will only be as good as the input. If there are doubts about these assumptions, and in most cases of serious planning there will be, sensitivities to minor changes in the payoff matrices are still fairly easy to calculate, but testing the sensitivity to even a minor change in the rules means the whole game has to be solved again, every time.
  • Game Theory Leads to a Rational Decision. Once the payoff values have been defined, game theory is not corruptible, insensitive to individual agendas, company politics or personal vanity. Although including the irrational, emotional factors in a decision can help account for factors that are difficult to quantify, like labor relations or public sentiment, being able to get a purely rational view is a value in and of itself. The drawback is,
    Game Theory Assumes Everybody else to be Rational, as Well. Worse than that, it assumes everybody to do what we consider rational for them. While some extensions to game theory are meant to account for certain types of irrationality of other players, the whole idea really depends on at least being able to determine how others deviate from this expectation.

These factors significantly impact the applicability of game theory as a decision tool in every day strategic planning. In that case, why is it taught so much in business schools? Why are many books on game theory extremely worthwhile reading material?

  • Game Theory Points in a Direction often Neglected. There are not that many other concepts around to handle interdependencies of different market participants. Just like having no other tool than a hammer makes many problems look like nails, not having a hammer at all tends to cause nails to be overlooked. Many dilemmas and paradoxes hidden in in-market interactions have only been studied because of game theory and will only be recognized and taken into account by knowing about them from game theory, even if the textbook solutions are hardly ever applicable to real life.
  • Game Theory Helps to Structure Interdependencies. Although the analytical solution may not lead to the ultimate strategy, even without seeking an analytical solution at all, trying to derive payoff matrices leads to insights about the market. Systematically analyzing what each player’s options are and how they affect each other is a useful step in many strategic processes, even if other factors are considered more influential and other tools are employed.
  • Game Theory Shows how the Seemingly Irrational may be Reasonable. Game Theory shows how even very simple, well-structured games can lead to very complex solutions, sometimes solutions that look completely unreasonable at first sight. This helps to understand how decisions by other market participants that look completely unreasonable at first sight may be hiding a method behind the madness.

In short, while game theory probably doesn’t provide all the answers in most business decisions, it sure helps to ask some important questions. Even if it is not most adequate everyday planning tool, it is a good starting point for thinking – which is not to be underestimated.

Dr. Holm Gero Hümmler
Uncertainty Managers Consulting GmbH

A Reading Recommendation that Points Beyond Planning

There are some interesting thoughts on risk culture in an article posted by the folks from McKinsey & Company: Managing the people side of risk. Rather than addressing the planning perspective, the article focuses on the challenges uncertainty poses for a company’s organization and culture. That is interesting, considering that planning alone will not insure that a company is actually able to respond to uncertain developments. Three requirements for a company’s culture are pointed out:

  • The fact that uncertainty exists must be acknowledged
  • It must be possible and actively encouraged to talk about uncertainty
  • Uncertainty must be taken seriously, and respective guidelines must be followed

While the article stays mostly on the surface and never indicates that there also is a strategic perspective to the issue, it hints at some anonymized real-life cases and contains an important beyond-strategy viewpoint.

The authors use the term risk instead of uncertainty, following the colloquial sense of associating risk with a negative impact rather than a quantifiabe probability.

Dr. Holm Gero Hümmler
Uncertainty Managers Consulting GmbH