6 business lessons of Rock, Paper, Scissors

Rock, Paper, Scissors can teach us a lot about strategy. Here are six lessons IT leaders can learn from this simple game.

rock paper scissors
Credit: Thinkstock

Sometime in the Han Dynasty in China between 206 BC and 220 AD the game of Rock, Paper, Scissors was born. It’s a two-player game. The opponents face each other and at a signal like “1-2-3-Go!” each player vigorously extends a hand out as a gesture.

The gestures are one of the following: Rock (as a fist), Scissors (as a V made with two or four fingers) or Paper (represented by your palm, fingers together). The winner is determined by the logic: Rock beats Scissor (it has the power to break it), Scissor beats Paper (it can cut it) and Paper beats Rock (it can wrap itself around and cover it). The same opposing gestures, such as a Rock against a Rock, or Scissors against Scissors, constitute a draw. The game is hugely popular all over the world; its simplicity ensures that all age groups can play.

Between machine opponents truly operating at random, there is no advantage. But human operators tend to be non-random and there have been competitions using various algorithms and heuristics to win the game. Recently, a robot has been built that is unbeatable. It wins by cheating. Using a high-speed camera, the robot detects the beginning muscle shapes and movements of its human opponent’s gesture. Before the human can complete the gesture, the robot speedily comes up with the counter-response that wins.

Here we look at the game as being between humans and six macro subliminal lessons in business behavior that can be learned from it.

1. Disruption overcomes the status quo

Rock, paper, scissors are each disruptive to the other – and the right attack wins. Just responding in like manner, say Rock vs. Rock, is ho-hum, just a prolonging of the game. To win, you need to come from somewhere else.

2. Time is of the essence

If you are not fast enough in your response, you are not playing the game. The opponent has to be matched. Fast analysis is key to responding to the competition.

3. Learn the pattern of your opponent’s behavior

Is your opponent prone to certain types of actions? Is there a bias? Are they fast or slow to adapt? The more competitive analysis you do, the better off you will be.

4. Don’t get caught in a rut yourself

You, too, can fall into a trap of repeat behaviors, when in fact advantage is to those who stay nimble. Spot trends and learn to change your behavior to harvest opportunity. Becoming predictable yourself can mean decline.

5. Longevity is not an advantage

Your opponent may have been around for a long time – but what matters is how you play the game. The past does not matter – how you are playing today does. Newcomers can beat entrenched adversaries. (I see kids beat grownups all the time).

6. What appears to be a weakness could be a strength

Paper overcoming Rock – that is really out-of-the-box thinking. Paper has little intrinsic strength, can be easily torn. But it can cover Rock to overwhelm. Business has many examples of this where an ostensibly weak adversary overcomes a stronger opponent by using a new approach, often as an element of surprise.

Now you are ready to play to win.

There is a nice counter to the earlier story about the cheating robot. Recently, a brain implant was put into a paralyzed man. His mind is now able to control a robot arm by thought alone – a great medical breakthrough. Repeated practice is needed even for simple acts such as drinking beer. To play Rock, Paper, Scissors the practice has to be done 6,700 times.

Azmi Jafarey has held CIO and senior IT positions with Ipswitch, Vertical Communications and Artisoft.

This story, "6 business lessons of Rock, Paper, Scissors" was originally published by CIO.