The Prisoners Dilemma, Trust, Cooperation and Effective Teams

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I have been reading Lord Sacks daily thoughts "Celebrating Life" and was impressed by his piece on "The Prisoners Dilemma". The Dilemma in a nutshell is that 2 prisoners are given the chance to do a deal and betray each other. If you want more background I have written about the dilemma previously and it also features heavily in my new book.

Lord Sacks is the UK's chief Rabbi and highlights one vital aspect of the dilemma which I had not previously paid enough attention to - the fact that the two prisoners are not allowed to speak to each other!

The Rabbi concludes, correctly, that when the two parties do not have to opportunity to negotiate with each other they will both likely make choices which appear optimal for themselves but turn out to be sub-optimal when both parties make their choices.

Rabbi Sacks applies the prisoners dilemmas persuasively to trust, community and society and concludes "nothing so conduces to virtue as prolonged exposure to the same set of people". When we live in isolation we hurt both both ourselves and society.

I would also apply the communications aspect of The Prisoners Dilemma directly to our organizations. People, teams, groups, departments and organizations who have inadequate social contact, communications and relationships with others will inevitably make choices which may appear good in the short-term but turn out to be damaging to them in the medium to long-term.

To let leaders and managers experience what this feels like this in a safe environment I regularly conduct team simulation game sessions where each team represents a football team who must compete in a super league against the 3 other teams in the room.

One of the rules we play the game by is "anything not explicitly forbidden is permitted". This potentially allows an enterprising team to fix matches with one of the other teams. Interestingly, however, most teams choose not to collaborate in this way even if by so doing they significantly improve their team's chance of success.

This pattern of behaviour, choosing not to collaborate easily, is a big problem in today's organizations and is known as the "sub-optimization problem". What happens is that departments attempt to achieve their individual goals in isolation of other departments goals thus inevitably confounding the overall organizations goals.

A fundamental principle of Systems Theory is "to optimize the whole you must sub-optimize the parts" - sadly in most organizations, departments and teams today we seem have got this the wrong way round!

Find out more about how to encourage collaborative behaviour between organizational teams using simulation games.

About Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson is an expert practitioner, author and speaker on collaboration and simulation-based learning.

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