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Karmona's Pragmatic Blog

The Agile Prisoner’s Dilemma

July 16th, 2007 by Moti Karmona | מוטי קרמונה · 3 Comments

The Prisoner’s DilemmaIn game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma is a game in which two players may each “cooperate” with or “defect” (i.e. betray) the other player. In this game, as in all game theory, the only concern of each individual player (“prisoner”) is maximizing his/her own payoff, without any concern for the other player’s payoff. In the classic form of this game, cooperating is strictly dominated by defecting, so that the only possible equilibrium for the game is for all players to defect. In simpler terms, no matter what the other player does, one player will always gain a greater payoff by playing defect. Since in any situation playing defect is more beneficial than cooperating, all rational players will play defect.

The unique equilibrium for this game is a Pareto-suboptimal solution—that is, rational choice leads the two players to both play defect even though each player’s individual reward would be greater if they both played cooperate. In equilibrium, each prisoner chooses to defect even though both would be better off by cooperating, hence the dilemma.

Note: Please read more about it in Wikipedia since there is much more information there then I want to copy-edited-paste into this blog… (especially after reading Kalish’s last blog post)

The prisoner dilemma is mainly about trust, cooperation and honest communication…

During an interview (back on June 2003) XP founder, Kent Beck was asked when XP is not appropriate?
Beck answered that “It’s more the social or business environment. If your organization punishes honest communications and you start to communicate honestly, you’ll be destroyed.”

So… if a team member cooperates (“communicates honestly”) while the environment competes (“punishes honest communications”).
In terms of the prisoner’s dilemma, this is the worst situation for the cooperator, and so, it is expected that no one will cooperate in such an environment.
Sounds familiar? Did you happen to work in a place where warnings (a.k.a. red flags) tagged you as a complainer? (also connected to the Stockdale Paradox post) or end up with assigned person tripping all over your problem space, trying to figure it out, while you try to implement the solution (When to approach your supervisor with a problem).

It is known fact that Agile methodologies enhances trust among team members by encouraging (as working standard) honest communication and cooperation with Daily Standup Meetings, TDD, Collective Ownership, Pair Programming, Sustainable Pace, Planning Game etc.
Leading me to claim that Agile leads teams into cooperation-cooperation situations and this is exactly where you want to be in your next police interrogation… ;-)

Don’t be caught…

Tags: Agile · Development · Pareto

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1  Uri Kalish // Jul 16, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    If I’m not mistaken, choosing the Nash Equilibrium option in The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a preferred choice only if I’m playing a single one-turn game (and with a rational opponent). I’m almost certain nobody will be fired after raising his first red flag (and I’m quite sure some of my teammates are crazy), meaning we’re dealing with a multi-stage game here, where cooperation can be rewarded and betrayal can be retaliated, hence the shift in the Equilibrium point.

  • 2  Moti Karmona // Jul 16, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    Kalish, you are more than right, the basic prisoner dilemma is simplified and way too abstract for real life (e.g. no communication is allowed between the prisoners) but the concepts are still valid in the iterative model even when you are adding real life compositions;
    e.g. Assume your organization is rewarding for “bug fixing ratio” will you find yourself fixing as many bugs as you can – choosing the simple bugs and ignoring priorities if possible with very little verification or testing (assuming regression are not measured)?

  • 3  Pasha // Aug 2, 2007 at 2:03 pm

    That’s not the prisoner’s dilemma, that’s the “measurement dilemma” (as posted here.
    As to iterative prisoner’s dilemmas – the “eye for and eye” strategy seemed to always win. What does it mean to us?? That once you fuck up your sprint, we give you the worst tasks in the next one?

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