Rock, Paper, Scissors - Part 1: Architecture

February 4, 2011 in Human-Centered Design
Mickey McManus
Chairman & Principal

(This series of articles was originally published as part of the inaugural Ideas Economy program created by the Economist Intelligence Unit.)

A friend of mine seems to be obsessed with using the game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” to settle just about any dispute that arises in our team meetings. Most people think “Rock, Paper, Scissors” is a simple game of chance. Everyone knows the rules; rock breaks scissors, paper covers rock, scissors cut paper. Since it seems random, most of us just decide to play a favorite; I usually play rock, as an opening gambit. Sure enough every once in a while I get lucky. I’ve noticed that most of the time though, my friend wins.

I decided I wanted to find out why he won far more often than he lost. I discovered that the game of “Rock, Paper, Scissor” isn’t entirely chance. Nor, to my surprise, is it just a one-off idea for a game (I always assumed that some kids just thought the game up back during the Depression or something, when they couldn’t afford fancy games like “Go Fish.”)

Before I get to the part about chance though, I’d like to delve into the second discovery. “Rock, Paper, Scissors” actually has a hidden architectural richness. It is an example of an entire category of concepts that are considered “Strange Loops.” Douglas Hofstadter explained the underlying principles or “architecture” of these sorts of sequences in his book, “Gödel, Escher, Bach” and his follow-on work entitled, “I Am A Strange Loop.” Side note, if you haven’t read GEB, stop reading this musing and go buy the book. It is considered a mind-blowing classic.

In a strange loop each part of the hierarchy is linked to another but there is no highest or lowest level. Unlike a deck of cards, where there are clearly high value and low value cards, when you play “Rock, Paper, Scissors” there is no single element that sits at the top of the stack. Think of Escher’s illustration of a hand emerging out of the paper to draw a hand, emerging out of the paper to draw a hand. Bach’s “Canon a 2, per tonos” is another. Bach used an audio illusion, now called a “Shephard’s scale,” that convinces our ears that the tones of the music are climbing ever upward in pitch and yet never actually get any higher. A strange loop is a sort of feedback loop that shifts paradoxically across levels.


Other cultures have “Rock, Paper, Scissors” games of their own. An Indonesian game called “Elephant, Earwig, Human” follows the same rules. Even in non-human, bacterial cultures, the same rules have been discovered regarding the survival of three variations of bacteria within the digestive system of mice.
When I realized that “Rock, Paper, Scissors” had an underlying architecture, and that many other systems use the same architectural principles, it was exhilarating. Not only did it give me a way to discover related patterns, but also predict new applications of the architecture. For instance, one possible theory of our own consciousness is that our minds are in fact a sort of strange loop-like emergent phenomenon that just “bubbles up” out of the workings of our individual neurons. “Rock, Paper, Scissors” turns out to be the tip of a very big iceberg.

So what does all this have to do with innovation?

I don’t hear many people in the business community talking about architecture in the broadest sense of the word. It is as if we have decided to re-invent the rules about what makes up a house, every time we try to build a shelter. Architecture has the potential to frame our problems in a way that gives us a blueprint to a vast array of solutions. It is everything you can define about a system, without knowing the underlying machinery that will make it work, or the interface we will use to get value. In our work we often find that an existing system has been built as a monolithic solution that jumbles the raw plumbing of the system with the business process and the way customers interact. Unfortunately this leads to a brittle solution that can’t evolve with new delivery platforms, new underlying systems, or new business realities. Yet if we base our thinking on deep architectural patterns rather than stunts and one-off tricks, if we invest in architectural thinking early on, we have a much better chance of beating the “fast followers.” They often compete by mimicking the successful strategies of others. Apple has long been a poster child for repeatable innovation and creativity. I would strongly suggest that one of their secret weapons is architectural thinking. By using architecture they have deep innovation pockets and can be agile. Imitators become superficial and brittle, or only copy what they can see and then wonder why their products and services haven’t become wildly successful. Architecture gives us agility and strategic reserve to win over the long haul. If you’re still a bit confused about what I mean about the “A” word, here is a short film on the subject.

Back to what else I discovered about the game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors…”

At the beginning of this article I noted that I thought it was a “simple game of chance.” But unlike truly random activities, “Rock, Paper, Scissors” isn’t only chance. If you play it over and over again you begin to see that opponents often reveal non-random preferences that masters, like my evil friend, can exploit. Some champions claim women usually start with paper and men with rock. In fact there are actually world champions of the game. Yes, that means there are world championship competitions and even, of course, fantasy championship leagues for online competitors. But I digress.

The game of innovation has similarities to “Rock, Paper, Scissors” in this regard as well. Many businesses treat innovation as if it were a game of chance and wind up getting taken to the cleaners by those competitors that have mastered the game. Others practice and internalize a winning approach, learn to read the signals coming from their markets (and more importantly their customers) and build on deeper principles. The best of them explore the underlying architecture of the problem, giving them agility and strategic reserves to not only play, but change, the game.

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