Using Game Theory to Reach Winning Decisions

Surviving a meaningful discussion is hard work. Whether it’s a tough-to-follow email thread or a never-ending meeting. Motivated and intelligent participants often find themselves treating a discussion like a “zero-sum game”, using anything in their power to sway it to the direction of their preference.

At some point, we have all been at the receiving end of such scenarios. These may include vague arguments (“In my experience, this approach will not be successful”), repeating the same argument over and over (“Just to reiterate…”), and even manipulating the discussion because of one’s seniority to get the upper hand.

These tactics may be useful in ending a discussion in your favor, but they do not yield the best possible result. At times, they may even end on the dreaded faux-courtesy note, “Let’s agree to disagree”.  By considering fundamental insights from game theory and using the right tools, we can avoid this pattern. In the elegant 1976 “Agreeing to Disagree” article, Robert Auman, a Nobel prize laureate for Economics, proved that:

Two “like-minded” individuals, who continually share their data and insight, can not agree to disagree.

Aumann’s “Agreement Theorm” has been referenced in thousands of research papers in the field of game theory. Economists and mathematicians may squirm uncomfortably at this layman simplification but what can we the majority who may fall outside of this expertise learn from it? How can we use the theorem to improve our manner of communication, the quality of our decisions and our general well being?

I propose to try and implement these three basic takeaways from Aumanns therorm:

  1. Agree on the facts

According to Auman’s theorem, when we share our data, experience, and point of view, our shared discussion gets us closer to the best result that the team can produce. How can you achieve that? It is the shared responsibility of your team to actively use a platform that allows you to hold all relevant data and other forms of input so that they are available to all the discussion participants.

  1. When commenting, always add new and relevant data

In order to get to winning decisions, avoid comments that add no value like “I like that idea”, “I don’t think this approach would work”, etc. The goal is to add substantive data and insight Ask yourself what concrete data point or idea can I share to impact the decision. If you want to lightly chime in, modern collaboration platforms ( included) provide you with easy ways to mark your agreement or disagreement with votes & emojis so that your opinion can be recorded without adding redundant layers to the discussion.

  1. Set a clear decision maker for every discussion

Now let’s address the elephant in the room. If perfect discussions cannot end with disagreements, how come in reality we see almost all discussions end with exactly that? Unlike mathematical theorems, in the business world, we don’t have the capacity to hash out every discussion endlessly. It means that we have to utilize our time properly and allocate more time only to important discussions. Thus, it is crucial to set up a clear decision maker for every discussion. The discussion owner has the authority to make a decision based on the outcome of a discussion. When this role is well defined, we do not have to feel obligated to reach a faux-consensus just to end a discussion on a positive note.

Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, famously wrote in his 2016 letter to shareholders about the company’s culture of “disagree and commit”. Instead of downplaying the different views of your team members, explore them and be willing to accept a decision based on the discussion. Now you know why disagreeing and committing is much better for the quality of your decisions than agreeing to disagree.

If you feel like you want to facilitate discussions, where quality argumentation and shared data is built into the walls, try today!



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