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Vol. 10, No. 1
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102  

Always Prepare Multiple Simultaneous Alternatives

© 2004, 2013 William A. Cohen, PhD

There is a well-known story in game theory known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma. It goes something like this. Two men are caught after committing a mugging. The District Attorney (D.A.) knows that these two are guilty. They were arrested in the vicinity with the victim’s wallet. They fit the description of the robbers. They both have done time in jail for similar crimes. Unfortunately, the robbery victim fails to correctly identify either in a police line-up.

The DA goes to one robber and offers him a deal. If the robber will identify the other man as the one who committed the robbery, he will be rewarded by being released since he himself has not been positively identified. His partner, of course, will go to jail.

The prisoner is left alone to consider the offer. If he does nothing, both he and his partner stand a chance of being convicted and going to jail. If he identifies his partner as a robber, at least he will go free, even though his partner will go to jail. He is about to accept this alternative, when he realizes that the DA has used a strategy of multiple simultaneous alternatives. It is likely that the DA has made the same offer to his partner! If both identify each other as involved in the robbery, they will both go to jail. If he does not identify his partner as a robber and his partner identifies him, he will go to jail and his partner will go free. The DA, a clever strategist, has arranged things so that he wins no matter what the robbers do.

Why Multiple Alternatives Are Needed

Every strategy should incorporate alternative simultaneous alternatives to reach an overall goal or objective. These alternatives may be alternative approaches or alternative intermediary objectives.

You should prepare more than one way to reach your objective in advance. That means, when formulating strategy, you must consider alternative simultaneous alternatives. And in most cases, you should incorporate these multiple alternatives into your strategic plan right from the start.

Why are simultaneous multiple alternatives necessary? There are several reasons:

  • Things rarely go exactly as planned, so you need to have alternatives not only ready to use but actually being used. When unexpected obstacles block one approach, an alternative approach is already at work.
  • Your competitors will take measures to thwart your efforts, so multiple approaches enable you to bypass these obstacles. In the best-case scenario, you put your competition on the “horns of a dilemma” where no matter what they do, they will suffer negative consequences.
  • Your main plan may not work as well as you had hoped. Rather than start from scratch, you can push one or more of the alternate approaches.
  • A leader who prepares multiple strategies is rarely at a lost. Be that kind of leader!
  • Exerting maximum effort through several different approaches at once can mean maximum impact to achieve your objective faster or more completely


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“If thou wilt take the left hand, then I will go to the right;
or if thou depart to the right, then I will go to the left.”
– The Bible, Genesis 13:9