Playing Cambridge Blue in a post COVID-19 world

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Daniel Hook, Executive MBA 2018 participant and Chief Executive Officer of Digital Science, explores how a game adapted from John Nash’s Prisoner’s Dilemma, can teach us about collaboration in times of crisis.

A team wearing blue medical scrubs and gloves

A favourite game of many Cambridge Executive MBA cohorts is known as the ‘red-blue’ game.

The game takes the Prisoner’s Dilemma from Game Theory, originally devised by the American Nobel-Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, and makes it “real”. The cohort is divided into two rooms, and in each room they are split into groups of 4 or 5 people.  Each of the small groups has a corresponding group in the other room.

The game is arranged in ten or so rounds. In each round, each of the small groups must either vote red or blue.  A comparison is made of the votes of the corresponding groups in the two different rooms. If both of two corresponding groups vote blue, both groups get +30 points. If one votes blue and the other red, the red-voting team gets +60 points, but the corresponding blue-voting team scores -60 points. If both teams vote red, they both score -30 points.  After the third and sixth rounds, an ambassador can be sent from each group to meet their corresponding ambassador to negotiate an approach to future voting.

The point of the game is to make the participants think about collaboration.  What does it mean to win? Is one of the small groups in one room playing against their counterparts in the other room, or with them?  Is one room playing against the other room? Is everyone playing together in both rooms?  If you vote red to try to maximise your score, hoping that your corresponding team votes blue, who are you really hurting? Members of the class get really into the game. It can even get quite emotional. People remember this game for years after their Cambridge Executive MBA experience.

Overcoming collaboration challenges

I’m a member of the 2018 EMBA cohort, meaning I complete my studies this year. Recently, we reached the end of almost 2 years of study, not together in Cambridge with our expected final weekend, a College dinner and one last Management Praxis ‘game’, but instead learning was moved online. The COVID-19 crisis put paid to our plans to meet for the final weekend in person, with a high percentage of the cohort unable to travel from overseas and those of us closer to Cambridge in lockdown. Regardless, the final sessions were no less emotional than they would have been in person. I firmly believe that the friendships that we have built over our time on the programme will last.

As I finished the video call on Friday, I reflected that we are all playing the red-blue game all our lives: there is a choice to compete or collaborate; to find a win-win path or to view the world as a zero-sum game. The red-blue game of the day is COVID-19. It is a red-blue game that is playing out in every city, in every country, between countries, between industries and between people right now. In the US, States are unsure whether to hold on to medical resources for the wellbeing of their own populations or to pass on spare resources to help other States, in case their own COVID-19 situations worsen, while the Federal Government looks on and lets an internal market in healthcare supplies develop.

Choosing to play blue

At a more local level, people choose whether to enjoy the sunny weather in the UK or self-isolate.  In the lecture theatre, the stakes for the red-blue game are low, yet participants get very involved in the tactics and outcomes. In the real world, these red-blue choices are not games, nor do we have the choice to participate or not. The stakes are different. People die.

If the Executive MBA programme has given me one message, it has been about leading collaboratively: working together and winning together. It has been about learning to “play blue”. Dr Simon Learmount, who teaches the Management Praxis module and originally constructed the Cambridge Executive MBA programme following the 2008 financial crisis, has created something special, enduring and very different to other EMBA programmes. Over the last few years, we have had to understand the nature of a post-truth world that some might consider a post-reason world, but following the past 3 months, we must seriously consider what our “post-COVID-19” reality looks like and whether the world wouldn’t be better if everyone (companies, organisations, governments and individuals) worked collaboratively and played ‘blue’ a little more often.

In his closing comments during our final online teaching session, Professor Khaled Soufani, Director of the Executive MBA programme, told this year’s graduating class:

“In your executive journey, it is not only about being economically viable, it is not only about being financially viable, it is not only about being efficient and productive. It is also about being good to our society, good to the world, good to the poor, good to sick, good to the weak, good to everybody. To be good citizens, good brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, friend and neighbours. Please remember that as part of your decisions and as part of your thinking.”

For us in the EMBA, and hopefully beyond, Professor Soufani’s words are good ones to live by in a world that will, sadly, continue to be defined by all the many red-blue games that will be played by politicians, by business and by individuals. We can’t afford the resolution of the COVID-19 crisis to be left to red-blue decisions. We can’t afford for the success of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to be left to the outcome of red-blue games. If the point of the EMBA was to ensure that there are a few more people out there open to looking for ways to play blue, then I think that the course was a success. And, in the world to come, this EMBA, and the idea that we should be playing a ‘Cambridge Blue’ is more relevant than ever.

Find out more about the Cambridge Executive MBA >

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