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August 19, 2010

News & Opinion: Mastering the Game

By: Sally Haldorson @ 8:11 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Last weekend, my co-worker, Roy, and I attended a small theater group's performance of the 1986 Cold War musical Chess. The musical was a huge hit in London, but when it was brought to Broadway, the format of the production was changed and it closed within 2 months. Being friends with theater folks in college introduced both Roy and me to the music and we are two of only a handful of people (my husband being another) we know who remember the show even exists: though perhaps you might know its most recognizable song, One Night in Bangkok. Perhaps that will change with a new production being launched in London at the end of this month. With music written by two former ABBA members and Tim Rice, famous collaborator of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Elton John, the musical (rock opera?) is both sumptuous and bombastic, political and romantic, as it tells the story of two chess champions (modeled after US's Bobby Fischer and the then-USSR's Boris Spassky) battling over the World Chess Championship...and a woman.

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There are plenty of business books that liken such things as strategy and negotiation to a chess game, but I find the most interesting books to be those that use game theory to reveal the inner workings of business. In 2008, I shortlisted The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist's Guide to Success in Business and Life by Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff for the "personal development" category of our Business Books of the Year awards.



At that time, I wrote:

A good decision should precede every action. But no decision is made in a vacuum. So just how do you become better at judging scenarios, predicting outcomes, managing negotiations? Dixit and Nalebuff yank game theory out of its traditional confines of math and science and present an accessible guide to using game theory to refine your strategic thinking.


Now, game theory isn't for everyone, and, like chess, I'm not even sure I'm very good at it or that I totally understand it. (Hence why I was an English major.) And in a 2005 article in Fast Company titled, You Got Game Theory!, Martin Kihn debunks the belief that any business can actually or has actually applied game theory when developing strategy.

But if you are intrigued by the idea that success is just a result of a series of correct decisions, and that game theory can help you make those decisions by giving you a framework from which to work, then you may enjoy a rather new book that Stanford University Press released in March 2010: Your Career Game: How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals by Nathan Bennett & Stephen A. Miles.



Nathan Bennett and Stephen A. Miles suggest that fewer people recognize how the pursuit of an open job can be framed as one "move" in a multifaceted game called "a career." The authors contend that individuals who quickly recognize the career game for what it is--a fascinating, complex, nuanced, real-life, multiplayer maze, played in real time--can develop into better players and, consequently, will have a better chance of successfully competing for the sort of positions that will help them to realize their goals.


In our current economic time, making the right job decision is even more critical to professional success because there are so few opportunities for advancement or even lateral moves. Your Career Game provides examples of successful executives of well-known companies and "discusses how their career moves demonstrate elements of a game theory approach to career management." This type of retroactive application of game theory will help readers draft a game plan for their career. For example, in the chapter titled, "Moves in the Career Game," the authors "offer a typology to distinguish different kinds of moves" in order to (wanton paraphrasing here) present what impact a move might likely have, what a move might reveal about your strategy, and how other 'players' might interpret and react to your move. While you may be able to easily predict that following a visionary leader such as Jack Welch when he leaves the helm almost guarantees failure to reach a similarly high bar, you may be less likely to know that "moving down to move up" in order to "retool or round out [a] skill set" can more likely lead to success than making a bold move forward hoping to learn on the job.

In the musical, Chess, The Russian, The American, and the woman all make decisions that compromise their professional success and break their hearts. More or less, they do not win the game. But, for readers of Your Career Game, you can use game theory to become a master of your own success.

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For a trip back to the 80's, here's the video for One Night in Bangkok with Murray Head who played "The American" in the UK version of the soundtrack.


One Night In Bangkok @ Yahoo! Video



About Sally Haldorson


Sally Haldorson's job as 800-CEO-READ’s General Manager is to make 800-CEO-READ a great place to work for our employees, and a consistently high-performing customer service organization for our clients, authors, and our partners in the publishing industry. In addition to her General Manager duties ensuring collaboration, integration, and quality, she reads, writes, reviews, curates, and edits for the company. Helping craft The 100 Best Business Books of All Time used parts of both skill sets. Outside of work, she is most likely to be found hitting a tennis ball around or hanging out with her boys (husband, child, dog) at home.