This is a guest post from Justin Fischer of Breaking the Wheel. Check out his site and follow him on Twitter for more awesome content. 

Decision making under uncertain conditions is a routine task for any company. But its ubiquity does not make it any easier. And, too often, we try to choose the way forward based on some absolute scale of good or bad. As if the choice has simply been made for us. We simply have to set more aggressive goals. Or have to add more content. Or we have to act defensively in a PR crisis. But this is a faulty method of decision making. The goal shouldn’t be to pick the “best” choice. It should be to pick the choice that best suits your particular idiosyncratic situation.

By Reading This Post, You Will Learn:

  • Why almost all actions have both upsides and downsides
  • How all meaningful business decisions, even the most difficult ones, have the same trade-off dynamic
  • Why it is better to consider decisions within the context of trade-offs rather than a good/bad dynamic
  • Why it is critical to have a high-level of self-awareness

Yin and Yang

“Understand the harm and benefit in everything.”

-Miyamoto Musashi, Legendary Samurai, Lifelong Student of the Martial Arts, Author of The Book of Five Rings

There is a reason the yin-yang is associated with martial arts. Every possible action represents a balance between conflicting forces. If you attempt to strike an opponent, you are also exposing a vulnerability. Punching leaves your ribs open to attack. Kicking leaves you with one less point of contact with the ground and thus less stability. If you are close enough to hit, you are (barring some massive mismatch in size) close enough to get hit. Likewise, if you are outside the striking range of your opponent, he is also outside of yours (again, barring the same mismatch).

In other words, there is no “perfect” move, no action you can take that is not without its drawbacks, no good that isn’t balanced out by some bad. Thus, effective martial artists devote much of their training to mitigating these drawbacks and learning how to best match their trade-offs against those of their opponents.

As game developers (and, presumably, game players), this notion is probably obvious to you. We’re the industry of glass cannons, re-specing, and min/maxing, after all.

And, on a similar note, one of the most valuable lessons I learned in grad school is that business has exactly the same dynamic.

Every decision carries upsides and downsides.

There Is Nothing Good Or Bad, But Thinking Makes It So*

The above realization is extremely useful in clarifying decision making. We typically view decisions from the perspective of good and bad. But that’s is a faulty metric. There certainly are good and bad decisions from a moral standpoint. A decision that hurts people (polluting a town’s water supply for the sake of expedient disposal of chemicals, for instance) is a bad decision. A decision to humiliate an employee in public for your own amusement is also a bad decision.

But most decisions you’ll face on a day-to-day basis will not have such strong morality questions about them. So stop thinking about them in terms of good or bad. Instead understand and compare the trade-offs.

For instance, consider the decision about whether to extend mandatory core hours. On the one hand, you’ll have a temporary boost in productivity. On the other you will increase the stress levels of your team members, experience a fatigue-induced drop in the quality of their output, and earn resentment from some or all of those impacted.

Or, what about setting ambitious goals that exceed your team’s typical rate of productivity, versus establishing a target you know you can hit? The upside is that you might get more done and you’ll have a rallying cry for your team. But, the downside is that your confidence level in your goal will be lower than for a conservative target. Additionally, the rush to meet an aggressive target may increase the rate of human error – team members may not have the time they need to double check their work.

None of these choices is inherently better or worse than its opposite, at least in the abstract.


There’s Always a Catch. And a Silver Lining

Any meaningful business decision will reflect this dynamic, from the operational examples above to higher order marketing and strategy decisions. For instance, do you make a game in an established genre or blaze a trail? The former has a proven audience and established mechanics. The latter carries more uncertainty, but all offers fewer direct competitors. Launching on mobile carries a large install base than on console, but also provides a broader, more diverse swath of competition.

Or, consider the ongoing VR/AR revolution. Is jumping into the fray a good or bad decision? Neither. It’s simply a question of trade-offs. VR is far from established as a sustained market, and has a greatly reduced install base compared to other platforms. But, it’s also an opportunity to get in on the ground floor with an emerging technology and establish yourself as a premier developer for it.

Know Your Enemy and Know Yourself and in a Hundred Battles You Will Never Be in Peril

So now that we’ve shifted our frame of reference from the misleading, emotional spectrum of good/bad into the more productive, rational spectrum of trade-offs, how are we supposed to pick between those trade-offs?

Simple: know yourself.

Know your company values Some trade-offs will be compatible with your company values, and some will not. If maintaining a reasonable work/life balance is a core value of your company, then the choice of setting an aggressive schedule (and the extended hours it implies) might be incompatible.

Know your processes If your team’s development process involves lots of prototyping, experimentation, and discovery, then a short production cycle that necessitates jumping right into feature development will be a mismatch, no matter how attractive the milestone payments are.

Know your skills It doesn’t matter how awesome an opportunity is. If you lack the skills to execute it effectively, it will be a failure. It’d be badass if Tool asked me to be their new drummer, but it would be foolish of me to accept. There’s no way I could come anywhere close to Danny Carey’s abilities any time soon. Or ever. Let’s just leave it at “ever”.

Know your strategic goals. If your company strategy is to own and find ways to monetize your own intellectual property, then a work-for-hire opportunity, regardless of how attractive it may seem, is not compatible.

The point being, an option that seems to be less attractive in isolation (for instance, targeting a reduced scope or smaller target audience) might be the better option for your idiosyncratic mix of factors, advantages, and risks. Likewise, an option that seems like a no brainer might prove to be catastrophically incompatible with your particular strategic, logistical, or corporate culture context.


What if You Haven’t Established or Don’t Know Any of the Above Attributes?

Then figure them out, my friend. And right quick.

Knowing your personal and company values, knowing your strategy, knowing your competencies – these are not idle notions. These aren’t whimsical academic concepts. The most effective companies know who they are, know what they stand for, and know where they’re going. Your strategy, values, operations and the lick aren’t fluff. They’re your north star, your guiding light when you find yourself at a fork in the road.

Beyond your own decision making, having a strategy, culture, process, and competencies that are clearly established well help align your team members. An orchestra can’t give you its best performance if you don’t give it a score. Likewise, your team members can’t make decisions that optimally serve the interests of the studio and project if they don’t have a clear framework of parameters within which operate.

So take the time reflect and clearly identify your own attributes. Figure them out before you need them. Then make damn sure EVERYONE in your company understands them.

Don’t Fall for the Good/Bad Trap

Decision making under uncertainty is already hard enough. Don’t compound the issue by making choices through the lense of good or bad. Instead, understand and identify the pros and cons of each option, then make your decision based on your own parameters and attributes.

If you can think rationally and clearly about what choice makes the most sense for your team, versus which choice is the “best” on some absolute scale, you will greatly streamline decision-making and improve your odds of success.


Key Takeaways

  • As in video games and martial arts, business decisions carry upsides and downsides
  • Decision points should not be viewed from the perspective of good or bad, but from the perspective of trade-offs
  • The best decision for you is the one that best matches you values, processes, strategy, and competencies
  • This is why it is critical that you have a clear understanding of those attributes
  • It is equally important that your team shares that understanding


Further Reading If You Enjoyed This Post

  1. If You Want To Lead, Know Your Values
  2. Marketing Games: Sun Tzu And The Fine Art of Succeeding Before You Begin
  3. Strategic Design: Why Dark Souls is the Ikea of Game Development


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* Hamlet: Act II, Scene 2