Thursday, March 07, 2019

The Power of Others

My brother, my partner, a friend and I sat around the table furrowing our brows at our respective cards. My partner and I were on the verge of winning a highly competitive game of Spades. Highly competitive because my brother and my partner are highly competitive people. The friend and I served as participants in their competition. I hadn’t played Spades in decades, the friend had never played at all.

In the version of Spades we played, you communicate to your partner and the table how many hands you think you can win at the beginning of each round. If you are focused on the others at the table, you can gain a significant amount of information:

  • How strong is their hand? Do they have a lot of high cards?
  • How strong is your partner’s hand?
  • Are they going to try to do something fancy – such as try to win NO hands – to get themselves more points?

My partner and I had a couple of advantages over my brother and our friend.

  • I had played before (admittedly a long time ago and I wasn’t very good).
  • My partner and I live together and know each other VERY well. I could use that information to interpret what was going on during game play and help his position if he is looking to win or lose a hand.
  • I also know my brother well enough to predict some of his moves.

This background knowledge allowed me to focus more on what others were doing and how they were playing the game. I could then make decisions based on that information. It wasn’t about me winning hands.

Successful change, whether personal or professional, starts from where you are at and continues based on what you are observing in the environment.

It’s not about “beating” someone else. Even in our highly competitive Spades game, everyone stayed more focused on quality time together and having fun in each other’s company over winning hands. No temper-tantrums ensued (thankfully). We all stayed focus on the reason for the game.

What we each did was observe, check our initial strategy against our individual and collective objective, decide what to do, then act based on that information.

Result – a fun evening and a stronger bond.


Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff, The Right Game: Use Game Theory to Shape Strategy, Harvard Business Review, March-April 1995.

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