Sunday, September 27, 2009

Think Like a Chess Player

The game of chess is a metaphor for business, and for life. Seemingly simple at the most basic level, chess is in reality mind-boggling in its complexity. The focus, discipline, and skill required to play chess well are reminiscent of the same attributes that are required to succeed in business. While not every business leader plays chess, every business leader can benefit from thinking like a chess player.

I first became fascinated by chess as a youngster in the early 1970's when the quirky American prodigy Bobby Fisher defeated the reigning world champion, the Russian Boris Spassky, in their famous title match in Reykjavik, Iceland. My sister and I played for hours on end. While there have been periods when I studied and played intensively, I have never been better than an average player. But I still love the game.

In his wonderful book on the history of chess, The Immortal Game, author David Shenk says, "The exquisite interplay of the simple and the complex is hypnotic: the pieces and moves are elementary enough for any five-year-old to quickly soak up, but the board combinations are so vast that all the possible chess games could never be played-- or even known-- by a single person."

Indeed, in a chess game, after just four moves by each player, the number of possible board positions is 315 billion. Shenk says, "The total number of unique chess games is not literally an infinite number, but in practical terms, the difference is indistinguishable. It is truly beyond comprehension-- 'barely thinkable,' as one expert puts it-- and beyond human or machine capacity to play through them all."

Business, like chess, can be seemingly elementary on its surface. The Oxford English Dictionary defines business simply as "commercial activity." Those of us who are in business know that our most fundamental objective is to sell our product or service to customers at a profit. Easy, right? No, because when we delve deeper into the world of business, things quickly become more complicated.

Therefore, preparation and experience are keys to success in both business and chess. Shenk points out that Bobby Fisher supplemented his obvious aptitude for the game with thousands of hours of study. Well-known author Malcolm Gladwell talks about this essential combination of talent and preparation in his book Outliers. Ten thousand hours of practice, according to Gladwell, is what separates the Bobby Fishers of the world from other talented people.

Similarly, in business, it is those leaders who know their discipline inside and out, and who spend years gaining knowledge and hard-won experience, who will best navigate the intricacies of their competitive environment. Those leaders will win over the long haul.

One of history's famous chess players was Benjamin Franklin. He was an American founding father, as well as a diplomat, scientist, publisher, and inventor. He was also a savvy businessman. Franklin said, "The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it… For life is a kind of Chess, in which we often have points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to deal with."

Franklin believed that chess sharpened his thinking, and that it taught several useful lessons. As quoted by Shenk, Franklin "asserted that the game improved a person's:
1) Foresight-- looking ahead to the long-term consequences of any action.
2) Circumspection-- surveying the entire scene, observing hidden dynamics and unseen possibilities.
3) Caution-- avoiding haste and unnecessary blunders.
4) Perseverance-- refusing to give up in dim circumstances, continually pushing to improve one's position."

There is one final way that business leaders can benefit from thinking like a chess player. Professor Dianne Horgan of Memphis State University has investigated how chess might improve various cognitive abilities. She found that, among other things, chess improves a person's self-perception.

Self-perception involves "calibration," which is the correlation between a person's perception of their own ability, and the actual level of their ability. In the population at large people generally have an overinflated view of their own abilities. Improving calibration skills-- by playing chess, for example-- significantly enhances the value of feedback. If people have an accurate idea of their own level of competence, they are more open to input from others.

I would never advocate that every business leader needs to learn how to play chess in order to succeed in the world of "commercial activity." I would argue, however, that the thinking skills utilized by chess players are the same kinds of skills that business leaders need to develop.

Business leaders need to work hard at learning their craft. They need knowledge, experience, and an in-depth technical understanding of their profession.

Business leaders need to be strategic, which involves skills like considering long-term consequences, surveying the entire scene for all possible outcomes, proceeding with caution, and sticking to goals even when the going gets tough.

Finally, business leaders need to be receptive to feedback, and to make adjustments as necessary to improve performance.

The leaders who display these qualities, whether they are actually chess players or not, stand the best chance of putting their competition into checkmate and winning the game.

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