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Kasparov’s agile thinking: business lessons from the game of chess

May 19, 2014

It’s 1874, and you’ve just invented the telephone. After hi-fives with your friend Watson, you head down to Western Union, then the greatest communications company in the world, and showcase your work.Despite your excellent pitch (a century before PowerPoint), they turn you down on the spot, call the telephone a useless toy, and show you the door. Would you have given up?What if the next ten companies turn you down?

Fortunately, Alexander Graham Bell didn’t listen to the folks at Western Union. He started his own business and changed the world, ultimately paving the way for the mobile device in our pocket today.

Everyone who has taken a shower has had an idea. It’s the person who gets out, dries off and does something about it – like Bell – that makes a difference. That’s Innovation – new thinking, big, fresh ideas. Big doesn’t imply anything about an idea’s scope or scale, but about its potential impact on your customers. Do you have a Big Idea?

Innovation is also the process of taking new ideas to customers – agile thinking. It is the conversion of new knowledge into new products and services, moving from imagination to impact, from innovation to invoice.

In any business, you need the right mind-set and culture to make it happen. I believe that there are five types of mind-set from my experience in business, which is yours?

  • Those that did not know that anything had happened – Senile
  • Those who wonder what happened – Futile
  • Those who watch things happen – Docile
  • Those who think they make things happen – Fragile
  • Those who make things happen – Agile

Agile thinkers make things happen, building innovation as a core competence within the culture of the organisation to seize their opportunities. For innovation to flourish in an organisation, both freedom and discipline must be present – freedom to imagine what is possible and discipline to turn ideas into action. Now if freedom and discipline are to be a duality rather than a dichotomy, how do you get the balance right?

Garry Kasparov, Grandmaster and World Chess Champion shares how he combined disruptive and disciplined approaches to bring him success in chess – a result of calculation, foresight and intuition. His book How life imitates chess is a must read for chess players and business thinkers alike.

It’s about having the vision to see 15 moves ahead, but you don’t need to appreciate chess to enjoy this book. Kasparov highlights long-term strategy, short-term gains, being creative in the ‘middle game’ in terms of chess, and how important decision-making is at any stage of the game. We do need to think ahead in business, if not for 10 moves, but then at least truly think through options and the consequences – that’s not calculating, it’s common sense.

Chess is really about psychology and intuition because the mathematics get complex very quickly. For me, the main take away of chess to business is the ability to recognise patterns, which can be exploited through practice and repetition. Kasparov illustrates that the unlimited number of subtle and intricate potential moves that lie within the 64 squares of a chessboard are totally applicable to business, how the game can help you step back and evaluate yourself to identify you strengths and weaknesses and thus better your game.

Kasparov is probably the greatest chess player of all time. His 120 games in a three-year struggle against Anatoly Karpov was one of the most intense head-to-head rivalries in sport history. Nobody has played chess so aggressively at such a high level for so long. The book contains some inspiring thoughts. Here are some quotes:

  • You must know what questions to ask and ask them frequently.
  • What am I trying to achieve and how does this move help me achieve it?
  • The virtue of innovation only rarely compensates for the vice of inadequacy.
  • We must also avoid being distracted from our strategic path by the competition.
  • Top achievers believe in themselves and their plans, and they work constantly to ensure those plans are worthy of their belief. 
  • Questions are what matters. Questions, and discovering the right ones, are the key to staying on course. 
  • Steady effort pays off, even if not always in an immediate, tangible way.

I am a passionate chessman, I love the game. Occasionally I have been a sacrificial pawn, but never a knight or a bishop – hells teeth, the mere thought of wearing a cassock makes me queasy. I would have liked to live in a castle or be king, but my ancestors made the wrong moves ages ago.

Although a social player, I once played in the university championships. This was during a flu epidemic when the brightest and best players in the team were sick, and I was the only one left who knew the moves to make up the team. My opponent was a dazzlingly pretty girl from Bath who captured my pieces in no time. Bad move. She buzzed off with our team captain, who knew how to mate, which I patently didn’t.

But enough frivolity, which Kasparov wouldn’t approve. What are the business lessons we can take from Kasparov’s thinking of a world-class chess player?

Know your weaknesses and strengths Self-awareness is essential to being able to combine your knowledge, experience and talent to reach your peak performance.  The key to developing successful strategies is to know what you do well. You must also be aware of your limitations.

The first phase in a chess game: the opening The purpose of the opening isn’t just to get through it, it’s to set the stage for the type of middle game you want. This can also mean manoeuvring for the type of game your opponent doesn’t want.  The openings are the only phase in which there is the possibility of unique application, you can find something that no one else has found. Be first, and be brave is the lesson for business.

The second phase: the middle game What sort of middle game is our opening going to lead to? Is it one we are prepared for? We must also play the middle game with an eye on the endgame. In business, it’s important to have a strategy, tactics and a game plan.

Decision-making: understand the rationale behind every move We all make our decisions based on a combination of analysis and experience. We have to be able to take a wider view so that we can evaluate the deeper consequences of our tactical decisions.

The best move The best move might be so obvious that it’s not necessary to spend time working out the details, especially if time is of the essence. However, often when we assume something is obvious and react hastily we make a mistake. More often we should break routine by doing more analysis, not less. These are the moments when your instincts tell you that there is something lurking below the surface, but take a moment to validate.

Dream a little, don’t settle automatically for routine solutions The paradox of chess is that there is a routine set down my mathematics to make a strong move based on its objective merits. But recall Kasparov was a combination of freedom and discipline, sober evaluation and calculation mixed with outlandish ideas. In business, you won’t find new ways of solving problems unless you look for new ways and have the nerve to try them when you find them, but ensure flair doesn’t mean or you spend your life making beautiful blunders.

The future is a result of the decisions you make in the present The strategist starts with a vision of the future and works backwards to the present. A Grandmaster makes the best moves because they are based on what he wants the board to look like ten or twenty moves ahead. This doesn’t require the calculation of countless twenty-move variations, but an evaluation where his fortunes lie in the position and establishes objectives. He works out the step-by-step moves to accomplish those aims.

Have a game plan Too often we set a goal and head straight for it without considering all the steps that will be required to achieve it.If you work without long-term goals your decisions will become purely reactive and you’ll be playing your opponent’s game, not your own. As you jump from one new thing to the next you will be pulled off course, caught up in what’s right in front of you, instead of what you need to achieve. Have a vision of success, clarity and focus in your strategy.

Intuition & analysis Even the most honed intuition can’t entirely do without analysis. Intuition is where it all comes together – our experience, knowledge and judgement – or even hunches. But it doesn’t matter how far ahead you see if you don’t understand what you are looking at before you, so combine the two. No matter how much practice you have and how much you trust your gut instincts, analysis is essential.

Attack An attack doesn’t have to be all or nothing, or lightning quick. Sustained pressure can be very effective, and creating long-term weaknesses in our opponent’s position can lead to a win in the long run. One of the qualities of a great attacker is to get the maximum out of a position without overstepping and trying to achieve more than what is possible.

In business, going on the front-foot requires perfect timing as well as nerve. The window of opportunity is often very small, as with most dynamic situations. No neon sign appears to say that there is a big opportunity right around the corner, so balance opportunity with rationale – back to the combination of freedom and discipline in your game plan.

Initiative Once you have the initiative you must exploit it. Kasparov reminds us that the player with the advantage is obliged to attack or his advantage will surely be lost. In business, a lead in initiative can be converted into a sustainable position. Being a step ahead means we can keep our competition off balance, shifting and moving in order to provoke weaknesses.

In chess, the defender has to race around to cover the threats, but against constant pressure the job soon becomes impossible. Moving to cover one breach creates another until something cracks and the attack breaks through. In chess we have the ‘principle of two weaknesses’. It’s rare to be able to win a game with only a single point of attack. Instead of becoming fixated on one spot, we must exploit our pressure to provoke more weak spots.  So a large part of using the initiative is mobility, flexibility and diversion. In business, it’s a combination of product, service and price that creates a winning position.

When you are winning game after game Winning creates the illusion that everything is fine, success is seldom analysed as closely as failure and we are always quick to attribute our victories to superiority, rather than circumstance. When things are going well it is even more important to question. Over-confidence leads to mistakes, a feeling that anything is good enough.  Our egos want to believe that we won brilliantly against tough competition, not that we were lucky and ‘right time, right place’. 

Kasparov shows that if we’re going to get the most out of our talent we have to be prepared to have a game plan, practice, think on the spot, analyse ourselves critically and improve our weakest points. The easiest thing is to rely on talent and focus only on what we do well. It’s true that you want to play to your strengths, but if there is too much of an imbalance growth is limited. In business, the fastest way to improve overall is to work on your total game, and all the constituent parts.

It’s important not to listen to the stereotypes we have of ourselves. Our own opinions of our abilities are often wildly inaccurate, driven by one or two incidents or comparisons. Chess is a mental game, but requires vision, tenacity, thoughtfulness, and multiple tactics. From this we can take the thought that in business we can look for ways to experiment and to push the boundaries of our capacity in different areas, it really is a combination of disruptive and disciplined approaches, and agile thinking.

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