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Complex decision making as an infinite game

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A decision is the act of choosing between two or more options.

There are two kinds of decisions, computable and non-computable [1]. In the former, options are well-defined and finite in number, and there are unambiguous facts (data) available based on which options can be rated. In the latter, options are neither clear nor enumerable and facts, if available at all, are ambiguous.

Computable decisions are simple, non-computable decisions are complex. We’ll refer to the two decision types by these names in the remainder of this article.

An example of a simple decision is buying a product (TV, car or whatever) based on well-defined criteria (price, features etc.). An example of a complex decision is formulating a business strategy.

It should be clear that simple decisions involve smaller temporal and monetary stakes – i.e. the cost of getting things wrong is limited and the effects of a bad decision wear off in (a relatively short) time. Neither is true for complex decisions: the cost of a poor choice can be significant, and its negative effects tend to persist over time.

A key feature of complex decisions is that they (usually) affect multiple parties. That is, they are socially complex. This has implications regarding how such decisions should be approached. More on this later.

Conventional decision theory is based on the notion of maximizing benefit or utility. For simple decisions it is assumed that utility of each option can be computed; for complex decisions it is assumed they can be estimated, or at least ranked. The latter assumption is questionable because each party affected by a complex decision will have its own notion of utility, at least at the outset. Moreover, since neither options nor facts are unambiguous at the start, it makes little sense to attempt to estimate utility upfront.

The above being the case, it is clear that complex decisions cannot be made on the basis of maximizing utility alone.  Something else is needed.

–x–

James Carse’s classic book, Finite and Infinite Games, begins with the following lines:

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite for the purpose of continuing the play.

A finite game ends when a player or team wins. However, “just as it is essential for a finite game to have a definitive ending, it must also have a precise beginning. Therefore, we can speak of finite games as having temporal boundaries.”

The parallel between simple decisions and finite games should be evident. Although less obvious, it is useful to think of a complex decision as an infinite game.

When making a complex decision – such as a business strategy – decision-makers will often focus on maximising potential benefits (aka utility). However, as often as not, the outcome of the decision will fall far short of the expected benefits and may, in some cases, even lead to ruin. This being so, it is perhaps more fruitful to focus on staying in the game (keep playing) rather than winning (maximising utility).

The aim of a complex decision should be to stay in the game rather than win.

How does one ensure that one stays in the game? Heinz von Foerster’s ethical imperative offers an answer”

Always act to increase your choices.

That is, one should decide in such a way that increases one’s options in the future thereby increasing chances of staying in the game. One can frame this discussion in terms of adaptability:  the greater the number of options the greater the ability to adapt to unexpected changes in the environment.

How can one “act to increase one’s choices”?

One way to do this is to leverage social complexity: get different parties to articulate their preferred options. Some of these options are likely to contradict each other. Nevertheless, there are ways to handle such a diversity of potentially contradictory views in an inclusive manner (for an example, see this paper; for more, check out this book). Such an approach also ensures that the problem and solution spaces are explored more exhaustively than if only a limited number of viewpoints are considered.

infinite_options_graphic

The point is this: there are always more options available than apparent. Indeed, the number of unexplored options at any stage is potentially infinite. The job of the infinite player (decision-maker) is to act so as surface them gradually, and thus stay in the game.

–x–

Traditionally, decision-making is seen as a logical undertaking based on facts or data. In contrast, when viewed as an infinite game, complex decision-making becomes a matter of ethics rather than logic.

Why ethics?

The answer lies in von Foerster’s dictum to increase one’s choices.  By doing so, one increases the chances that fewer stakeholders’ interests are overlooked in the decision-making process.

As Wittgenstein famously said, “It is clear ethics cannot be articulated.” All those tedious classes and books on business ethics miss the point entirely. Ethical matters are necessarily oblique:  the decision-maker who decides in a way that increases (future) choices, will be acting ethically without drawing attention to it, or even being consciously aware of it.

–x–

Any honest discussion of complex decision-making in organisations must address the issue of power.

Carse asserts that players (i.e. decision-makers in the context of this article) become powerful by acquiring titles (e.g. CEO, Manager etc.). However, such titles can only be acquired by winning a finite game– i.e. by being successful in competitions for roles. Power therefore relates to finite rather than infinite games.

As he notes in his book:

Power is a concept that belongs only in finite play. To speak meaningfully of a person’s power is to speak of what that person has already achieved, the titles they have already won.

Be that as it may, one cannot overlook the reality that those in powerful positions can (and often do) subvert the decision-making process by obstructing open and honest discussion of contentious issues. Sometimes they do so by their mere presence in the room.

How does a complex decision-maker deal with the issue of power?

Carse offers the following answer:

How do infinite players contend with power? Since the outcome of infinite play is endlessly open, there is no way of looking back to make an assessment of the power or weakness of earlier play. Infinite players look forward, not to a victory but toward ongoing play. A finite player plays to be powerful; the infinite player plays with strength. Power is concerned (and a consequence of) what has happened, strength with what has yet to happen. Power will be always restricted to a relatively small number of people. Anyone can be strong.

What strength means is context-dependent, but the following may help clarify its relationship to power:

Late last year I attended an end-of-year event at the university I teach at. There I bumped into a student I had mentored some time ago. We got talking about his workplace (a large government agency).

At one point he asked, “We really need to radically change the way we think about and work with data, but I’m not a manager and have no authority to initiate changes that need to be made.”

“Why don’t you demonstrate what you are capable of? Since you are familiar your data, it should be easy enough to frame and tackle a small yet meaningful data science problem.” I replied.

“What if my manager doesn’t like my taking the initiative?”

“It is easier to beg forgiveness than seek permission.”

“He might feel threatened and make life difficult for me.”

“If management doesn’t like you’re doing, it’s their loss. What’s the worst that could happen? You could lose your job. With what you are learning at university you should have no trouble moving on to another role. Indeed, by doing so, you will diversify your experience and increase your future options.”

–x–

To summarise:  when deciding on complex matters, act in a way that maximises possibility rather than utility. Such an approach is inherently ethical and enhances one’s chances of staying in the game.

Complex decision making is an infinite game.

[1] There are many other terms for this classification:  tame and wicked (Horst Rittel), programmed and non-programmed (Herbert Simon), complicated and complex (David Snowden). Paul Culmsee and I have, perhaps confusingly, used the terms uncertain and ambiguous to refer to these in our books.  There are minor contextual differences between how these different authors interpret these terms, but for the most part they are synonymous with computable/non-computable.

 

Written by K

January 21, 2020 at 4:09 am

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