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 / Third Quarter 1996 / Issue 4(originally published by Booz & Company)


"Co-opetition" by Adam M. Brandenburger and Barry J. Nalebuff

From these examples, it's not hard to see how game theory can get very complicated very soon. The combinations and permutations of card opportunities would very quickly get to be astronomical. On the other hand, it's also not hard to see why much of what might be called game theory—say, the avoidance of wars between siblings—is intuitive and commonsensical.

And therein lies the problem with "Co-opetition." It is full of interesting case histories of companies and business strategies and entrepreneurial coups. It instructs readers to contemplate "added value" and "complementarity" as they assess opportunities. It notes that different "players" have different perceptions of the world and that a game may have a "scope" that can't quite be envisioned yet.

The professors approvingly cite, for example, a campaign by Robert Taylor, who gave the world liquid bath-and-shower soap, to establish brand loyalty for his upstart product. He took a wild gamble and spent several times his worth on 100 million dispenser pumps, creating a shortage that kept his bigger and better capitalized competitors, including Procter & Gamble, from copying—"cannibalizing," the professors say—his product. It's clever, it's inspiring, it makes good reading, but why is it game theory?

The authors never really make clear what distinguishes game theory from good business sense. Decision-making is looking upside, downside, matching advantage against disadvantage, marrying a weakness to a strength and occasionally doing something "counterintuitive" that actually makes complete sense in context. Since the book is full of good stories, it's hard not to recommend it, but readers looking for science are likely to be disappointed.

Barbara Presley Noble, the former At Work and Business Book Review columnist for The New York Times, has an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University and was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in business and economic journalism at Columbia.
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