The metagame is playing a different game than your competitors. A game they can’t play.
The metagame is a strategy that involves understanding the structural or unconscious reasons that things are the way they are. This is the strategy that Warren Buffett and Bill Belichick use to create an advantage. It’s what smart managers like Ken Iverson do to get the best out of people.
There is an interesting section in an obscure poker book called The Raiser’s Edge that explains the concept of a metagame:
The metagame is this psychological game that exists among players, involving adjustments – adjustments based on how an opponent is likely to interpret a given set of actions. Better players adjust their strategies and styles to those of particular opponents, always analyzing how the opponents are playing in terms of how the opponents believe they’re playing.
Maintaining a well-balanced strategy, while deciphering your opponents’ strategies, is the key to the metagame. If you comprehend the concept of the metagame, accurately perceive the flow of your table and then tournament, and stay alerted to and aware of current strategy trends, you’ll be able to successfully mix up your play when considering your image and that of your opponents. In return, your game will be highly unpredictable and difficult to read, which should be your ultimate goal.
Warren Buffett and Bill Belichick both use the metagame to create an advantage that others have a hard time matching.
Let’s look at Buffett first.
Buffett is widely considered to be the best investor in the world. The company he controls, Berkshire Hathaway, often purchases companies that are public and makes them (effectively) private. For better or worse, public companies have certain environmental constraints. There are numbers to meet (or manage, depending on how you look at it). Expectations to meet. Shareholders who want different things.
The environmental impact of being public often nudges companies toward a path away from their best long-term interest. The timelines of CEOs and shareholders are often not the same.
For example, even if the investment made long-term sense, established companies would have a hard time increasing investment in research and development without an immediate impact (as this reduces earnings.) They’d also have a hard time building inventory (as this increases the amount of the capital required to operate the business).
This divide creates an interesting scenario where public companies can be at a long-term disadvantage to private companies. Private companies can do things that public companies can’t do because of the perceived (or real) environmental norms.
This is where Buffett comes in. He can encourage the CEO of the companies he acquires to take another path. They can take a longer-term view. They can make investments without penalty that won’t pay off for years. They can increase inventory. They can run the company without the worry of meeting quarterly expectations. Because they can take advantage of the environmental factors that public companies are under, private companies can’t easily be copied in this sense.
This isn’t limited to finance and investments. It relates to everything. Bill Belichick, perhaps the best coach in NFL history, uses the same strategy. He plays a different game.
Here’s an example. Last year Belichick traded away one of the team’s most gifted athletes (Jamie Collins) in the first part of the season. While Belichick never came out publicly to say the reasons Collins was traded, he effectively traded one of the teams best players for nothing. Very few coaches would have traded away a star for nothing. Belichick was playing a version of metagame. He was able to do something that was for the good of the team that would be controversial in the media. A strategy that almost no other coach could get away with.
The ancient Romans employed the same strategy. They were excellent at hand-to-hand combat but lacked the naval capabilities of Carthage. So they played a different game … one that played to their strengths and used the enemies strengths against them.
Now you can argue that Buffett and Belichick can do things no other person can. You can argue these are Hall-Of-Famers that get more leeway. But interestingly, that’s the point. Part of their greatness comes from identifying the constraints of others and capitalizing on those structural disadvantages, just like the Romans did.
In any system where there are norms, there are strengths and weaknesses to those norms. If you follow the norms of the system, the results you get are likely to be the norm. When you play a different game, a metagame, you have the opportunity to outperform.