A win-win situation

We’re often encouraged to look for the “win-win” outcome, or a situation will be described as “win-win”. Generally it’s used to point teams to look for outcomes where all parties will benefit.

It’s common parlance now but it comes from game theory, specifically from “non-zero-sum” theory. That is a game some outcomes have a total greater or less than zero, best illustrated by the prisoners dilemma.

Imagine that two prisoners can either betray the other or remain silent with the following potential outcomes.

Prisoner B silent
Prisoner B betrays
Prisoner A silent Each serves 6 months Prisoner A: 10 years
Prisoner B: goes free
Prisoner A betrays Prisoner A: goes free
Prisoner B: 10 years
Each serves 5 years

Rationally prisoners will betray, since that gives them the best outcome when they don’t know how the other will behave. Which gives you an indication of how hard it is to get to a win-win situation between two parties with competing interests.

The above table becomes abstracted and generalised to the following;

B co-operates
B defects
A co-operates
win-win A loses much/B wins much
A defects B loses much/A wins much lose – lose

Given that there is a rational advantage in defecting, and often in defecting early, it can take tricky negotiation to get both parties to co-operate.

In addition the win-win should be a new solution that delivers postive outcomes to both parties, in practice a compromise can be called a win-win when it delivers less to each party and is in fact a lose-lose, but with both parties losing less than in a dual defect situation.

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