02 July 2019

Chess success vs. professional success

Photo from https://drprem.com/business/astonishing-similarities-chess-business-strategies
I have to admit I'm a little leery of some (well, most) of the business books and articles that use chess as a basis for how to achieve success at work. This isn't a phenomenon limited to chess of course, as everything from Sun Tzu's Art of War to Shakespeare's speeches to "mindfulness" has been touted as a (or often the key) to professional success.

A brief internet search will pull up various things such as the article linked to the above picture, which looks very modern, stylish and professional, except that the chessboard is all one color (?) - at least the pieces are set up in the right order.  This illustrates one of the issues with the genre: most of the time, business writers aren't serious chessplayers who understand the game at any depth, nor do most professional chessplayers have a top-level business or managerial background. And even then, one can easily stretch chess metaphors too far as a writer.

All that said, having worked to grow in chess strength over the years ("The Long Journey to Class A") while also having gained professional management experience at various levels, I can say there are some very useful parallels in terms of skills and approaches that a person can use in both arenas.  I don't know if there's a book-length lesson in there, but I recently boiled the principles I consider most relevant down to around a 45-minute presentation for a group at work.  (They had found out I was a chessplayer and expressed interest in a presentation on the topic, so I said why not.)

Here's a lightly edited version of the outline.  I called it "The 4 Ps" because business presentations are all about catchy, easily remembered alliterative lists.

Preparation - take care of how you show up to each game / workday
  • Mental – focus, calmness, objectivity in assessment
  • Physical – endurance, sufficient rest and recovery, healthy distractions
  • Presence and attentiveness

Planning and evaluation - consciously make an evaluation of each position / situation
  • Learn when to apply general rules and procedures vs. using your personal judgement in specific situations
  • Pattern recognition – take advantage of this “automatic” analysis derived from experience. ("I've seen this movie before...")
  • SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) of a position / situation
  • Know the “why” of what you are doing. Never decide to make a move / take an action without being able to express clearly what it will do (and not do)
  • Balance between following a plan and adjusting to new circumstances

Perspective - ask yourself what can the other side can do
  • You control only your own sphere of action. The rest either someone else controls, or it is uncontrollable
  • Thinking ahead: understand the action – reaction sequence of an initial action (calculating "X moves ahead")
  • Unless you deliberately adopt a different perspective beyond your own "side", you won’t see others' possible reactions, so can’t get ahead of the action-reaction curve

Post-match learning - understand what happened and why
  • Even when you are successful, there is always an opportunity for learning and critiques
  • If you lose / fail, understand why and identify the lessons for improvement for the next time
  • Articulate to yourself what you did well and what you need to work on. Welcome constructive feedback from others, as it will help inform you
  • Both success and failure are transitory. Tomorrow is another day
  • Pay special attention to the critical decisions, why they were taken and the results

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