Creative Thinking and the Destruction of a Game: External Strategy Factors

Stone Forest Near Kunming

At a conference in Kunming, southern China, I saw a really good example of a spontaneous strategy devised to win a contest – and a comical outcome.  The participants were a number of bright young managers from Asian companies that distribute electronic components.  It was a long day and to keep everyone’s interest, conference organizers inserted the contest between sessions.

The simple game worked like this:  a moderator would ask two questions.  The first person raising his hand and correctly answering both questions would win a prize.  Simple.  There was to be a series of pairs of questions and prizes.

Wait.  Before going on, what do you think their winning strategy was?  Picture yourself in that situation.  Don’t peek.

OK, here’s the answer.  A literal approach would be to think of the answer to each question as soon as it was asked by the moderator, and then raise your hand if you knew both answers.  Initially the contestants did just this.

But soon a contestant raised his hand before the moderator completed the 2nd question.  This created a barrier for his competitors.  It didn’t matter if they knew both answers.  Since his hand went up first, he was the first to be asked, irrespective of whether he knew the 2nd answer or not.

If he knew both answers he’d win over any other competitor who knew both because the
others were blocked out.  If he didn’t know both answers, then it was no big deal to him because he couldn’t have won anyway.

It took 3 or 4 microseconds for some others in the crowd to adopt the same strategy, and it soon became a game of creating a barrier for the other competitors by raising one’s hand even sooner.   In no time, hands were shooting up before the moderator could even get the first word of the first question out of his mouth.  The game self-destructed and everyone had a good laugh.

External factors     

In looking at strategies up to this point, we’ve been concerned with only the 6 elements
comprising a strategy:  But a closer look at the story above shows that there are other important factors that come into play, that we need to be aware of.

These factors are 1) other parties who may be involved and 2) timing.  Neither of these factors is an element of a strategy, but they can both have a major influence on the elements – and therefore the outcome.


In a competitive or other adversarial situation, the other party(s) can potentially have a negative influence on any or all of your strategy elements.   They can create barriers for you or make existing ones worse; they can diminish your advantage, etc.   Yes, even your objective (they can make it less important to you – diversion).

Meanwhile, they can diminish their own barriers, improve their own advantages, etc. Given all your elements and all theirs, other parties can create a thicket of problems for you.

But don’t forget that you can do the same unto them.

In a cooperative situation, on the other hand, a collaborating party can have a favorable influence on potentially any of the elements in your strategy.  They might supply a needed resource you don’t have, or be able to create a barrier to one of your opponents, for example.

Often cooperative strategies are by far the most efficient and are sometimes necessary if there’s to be any hope of meeting an objective at all.

Cooperative or competitive, successful strategies frequently depend on taking into account other parties who have an interest in the outcome.

In posts on strategy types (incl. competitive and cooperative), we’ll poke into this


In the Kunming story, it wasn’t enough to know the answers.  It wasn’t even how quickly you could raise your hand.  It was how soon you could raise it, relative to the others.  You had to beat the other contestants to the punch.  If you didn’t raise it soon enough, you lost.

Timing is often a critical factor for strategy success.  A farmer can have a great strategy for choosing a crop, for tilling the soil or for getting the seed to the right depth when he plants.  But if he doesn’t plant at the right time, none of that matters – his crop will fail.

If the quarterback in our football example in the post on mismatches didn’t throw the ball at the right moment, the play would fail.


This is a good point to round out our strategy vocabulary.  Let’s call all the factors surrounding our objective its “circumstances”.  Our objective’s circumstances consist of the other strategy elements, together with any relevant external factors.  A strategy that takes into account this range of factors is a Real Strategy.  It draws a line around the only things we should care about when devising a strategy, and helps us to focus our attention on where it needs to be.


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So far, the posts on this blog have focused on tuning up to the field of strategies in which we are immersed, looking at what strategies actually are, the anatomy of strategies, and key external factors that can influence them.

These are the things we need to take with us into the next post, which is about how to consciously devise a strategy.

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One Response to Creative Thinking and the Destruction of a Game: External Strategy Factors

  1. I am having a great time reading these posts. Now I will have to figure out how to be informed when the next one is available.

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