During my trip to Ultraworking HQ in Kuala Lumpur last year, the UW team found a valuable metaphor in the game Pandemic.
Not only was it fun to play, but it was also very illustrative of the difficulties of making decisions when there are competing factors on a medium-to-long time scale.
How Pandemic Works
I find boardgames incredibly hard to learn without playing them, but here’s a paragraph from the Wikipedia entry for Pandemic with the very basics and a YouTube video for the curious:
The goal of Pandemic is for the players, in their randomly selected roles, to work cooperatively to stop the spread of four diseases and cure them before a pandemic occurs.
So how can we use Pandemic as a Metaphor (PaaM hereon out) for decision making? Here are a few examples.
Paam #1: The Decision-Making Process
Each Pandemic turn, players go through a similar process to make decisions about what they should do.
Very generally, strong play takes the form of looking at your progress towards winning or losing the game (cures gained, outbreak count, cards left), observing the current state of the board (where the player pieces are, infection rates in various cities), what moves will hit the optimal medium between preventing outbreaks and finding cures, and then talking through the planned moves while actually doing them.
In other words, it’s like an OODA loop (orient, observe, decide, act).
Startups have to do this constantly. What are the winning conditions? What is the current state of things? What’s the most effective move to hit the winning conditions? Alright, let’s do it.
PaaM #2: Fires vs Downstream Potential
That’s a good strategy for not losing. But I don’t think it will help us win.– JB explaining why my positioning strategy wasn’t a great idea.
Each Pandemic turn, players try to decide the optimal combination of reducing the infection in particular cities vs sharing knowledge and building research stations in the hope of finding a cure.
This is an excellent metaphor for making a decision to solve urgent problems vs one to set up for ultimate success.
On the one hand, if players lean focus too much on curing diseases and ignore the cities that are heavily-infected, they’ll lose the game rather quickly.
Neglect your current customers because you’re busy planning the future? Well that will certainly burn some bridges.
But that doesn’t mean you should spend all of your company hours on customer service. Time is limited, after all.
Similarly in Pandemic, if players lean too heavily towards reducing infections (short term urgent play), they may run out of turns and will lose the game (this happened to our team in my first game).
In business, this kind of over-optimizing for urgent tasks could be those customer emails…or tweaking homepage copy for the next campaign…or refactoring the code, or whatever.
And all of these tasks are valuable! So is saving cities from outbreaks.
But time is a non-renewable resource. And that’s why the decision-making is hard.
So back to the first part of this metaphor, Pandemic is a great metaphor for the tradeoffs you face when making decisions about whether to solve urgent problems or to do important work that sets up for later success.
PaaM #3: Information Completeness & Stability
So if we do this in five turns, we should be able to win.– Shortly before drawing an Epidemic Card
The final metaphor is focused on how complete and stable your information is at a given time.
In Pandemic, like in real life, things can change quite quickly. One Epidemic card can transform an unassuming North America city into one turn away from a potential game-losing Outbreak.
So when making decisions, players have to consider the current state of the board as well as the probability that they’ll draw a card that might change everything.
Of course, the players usually don’t know what the next card to be drawn will be so their knowledge isn’t complete. They just have to guess to the best of their ability.
How often do we have incomplete information in real life? Almost always?
Like Pandemic, having incomplete information in real life means we have to guess to the best of our ability. Life and business are not “solved games” (though there are certainly patterns that lean towards better outcomes).
Regarding information stability, the game is also quite fitting. What players know about the game board changes each turn and they adjust their strategy accordingly. Players often try to plan out what to do five turns later, only to find out that the game board has made their plans unusable.
In business, planning too far ahead at a point when information is rapidly changing seems like a waste of time. It’s an exaggeration, but would it make sense to spec out the details for version 5.5 of your app when you’re still putting together the alpha version? Of course not.
But it does make sense to think a few steps forward. Or even further into the future if the detail is less granular. Perhaps the pattern is that the less stable the information, the less granular plans can be.