Strategy and luck

I like strategy board games. Part of what I enjoy about them is working out how they work and how I can play the game to win. Board games in many ways reflect how things work in management, work and life; in essence they are miniature representation of something bigger than what they look. They are often underpinned by similar principles that we deal with – consciously or unconsciously – in daily life across different spheres of life: business, home, etc. For example, Bohnanza and Dominion are about how we invest what we have and use that to accumulate further resources. They are played differently and objectives achieved differently – the biggest difference in Bohnanza I have to trade and negotiate with others to achieve my aims. The moves I make now, will lead to consequences later. The more players involved the less predictable it becomes.

One thing I observed in playing board games is that it is important to understand the rules, but critical to successful outcome is to work out the principles and develop strategies that can help win the game. However, this practice does not ensure, only help, increase my chances. In my observation, when more than one player deploy the same strategy as mine, then it reduces the chances of me winning the game. Luck plays an important role here. Little things, like who started or what cards I draw affected the outcome by small margins. Winning just one game is a poor sample of what strategies work. Although in real life we are often prone to using single successes to draw big lessons.

The whole notion of good strategy often implies that it is one that wins you the day, and if your strategy did not deliver the expected outcome then it is either a bad strategy or a failed strategy. But life is too complex for such simplifications (and such poor vocabulary does not really help in practice). To say that only winning strategies are good strategies is to suggest that when you have a strategy you are in control of the circumstances, or even the universe, and therefore you only need to work out the steps of what needs to happen and in what order (also known as strategic planning). Being smart or working out appropriate strategy is important, but so is luck. Yet luck often seems to be neglected in strategy, business language and traditional textbooks. Perhaps it is too elusive (especially for the scientifically driven decision making), perhaps it cannot explained, perhaps it cannot be contained. More importantly luck cannot be eliminated, but do we ignore it because we do not know how to deal with it or talk about it?


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