Dec 2, 2022 4 min read

Strategy as Tetris rather than Chess

Strategy as Tetris rather than Chess

Is chess a good analogy to describe decision making and strategy in organizations? For most folks, probably not.


Less in control than we think

One of the paradoxes of modern leadership is that more responsibility also means less control. You are responsible for results but don't have direct control over input. You have to work through others. Same goes for constantly changing external conditions outside your control but that nevertheless affect performance.

Conventional treatments of decision making and strategy ignore this fact, at least implicitly. The underlying assumption is that you can step outside the system, figure out what's going on, and put things into motion that lead to desired outcomes. You can somehow extricate yourself outside the model and then rejoin the chaos at will.

No bird's eye view

This is where chess comes into the picture in the context of strategy. The core ideals are of an overarching view, thinking ahead, and planning contingencies.

But unlike chess, it's rare to have a clear view of everything that's going on. We might be intimate with our own team's issues but perhaps not so much with how it affects and interacts with others, let alone understanding it from their perspective.

A bird's eye view by definition requires detachment and perspective which is a luxury at least at the lower managerial and executive levels. It's more fantasy than reality.

Strategy often emerges from the engagement with reality rather than from a detached perspective. Thus Tetris might be a better candidate to describe what managers actually face on a daily basis — a constant barrage of undifferentiated issues, challenges, and crises that you are constantly tackling.

Tetris thinking

The lack of space to think and breathe is more of a nature of the beast rather than a problem to be eliminated. Recognizing this beforehand and adjusting accordingly can help.

The uber prolific Venkatesh Rao calls this Tetris thinking:

When they get to subjects like risk, books on decision-making traditionally introduce analogies between life and games. Chess, Go, poker, casino games and football are the usual suspects. I prefer an unlikely candidate: Tetris.

Like other games Tetris is a closed world, but it models the primary processes in open-world risk management – dealing with increasing entropy and consciously choosing your path to death — very well. Playing Tetris helps you hone entropic decision-making skills.
...

The purpose of the game is to position and stack blocks of various shapes that fall from the ceiling to the floor of a tall, rectangular game-play screen. Compact, filled rows at the bottom disappear by sinking through the floor, while poorly packed rows with holes persist. Over short periods, the height of the stack can go up or down, but over longer periods, it inevitably rises, and you have a gradually shrinking amount of vertical space above the stack to maneuver new blocks into place.

There is a vicious cycle: If your current decision is poor, your next decision becomes harder, since bad decisions raise the stack height, leaving you with fewer options and less time to make the next decision.

Eventually, the stack hits the ceiling, and you die.

— Venkatesh Rao in Tempo

Proactive planning sounds good but is often not an available option. Reactive responding tends to be the norm. Tetris captures this reality of realtime responsiveness.

Decision debt

Tetris also better highlights the notion of decision debt — inefficiencies that are non-fatal by themselves but that accumulate overtime as a result of sub-optimal decision making and eventually end up being lethal.

Consequences of our actions are often not immediate. They tend to play out over time and so do unintended second and third order effects.

Many mistakes start off as right actions in the moment. They become one only in hindsight. It's an inevitable aspect of taking action in complex environments with no clear cause and effect.

Nothing wrong with this as long as we recognize that it is in fact the game we are playing.

Actions as generating intelligence

Another aspect of Tetris is constancy of action and the feedback it generates.

Not taking action is an action itself and equates to elimination and death. Inaction is not an option and neither can you wish for anything different. Action is what creates the intelligence to take further action and keep playing the game.

You can't think several moves ahead either. At its essence you can only do one row at a time.

Reality keeps coming.... Wishing for certain shapes is of no help. Anxiety about future shapes and worry about previous moves have no direct effect on where the shapes fall. Only the player's behavior at the keyboard affects the rotation and placement of the shapes. Surely life is like that.

Act on reality and it responds. Merely think about it and reality cannot respond.

— David Reynolds in Handbook for Constructive Living

It's one reason why sometimes the wrong but timely decisive action that can be course corrected is better than the perfect delayed action with no feedback. Imperfect action is sometimes better than perfect inaction.

Balancing action with reflection


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Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at sheril@leadingsapiens.com.
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