Developing a Strategic Plan: Play Chess, Not Checkers


The Importance of Developing a Strategic Plan

Many believe the ‘big’ move is what wins a chess game. Movies such as, “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” or “Life of a King” depict a huge finish in the last minute of play. However, this is paradoxical to what any grandmaster would teach you. This same rule applies to the development of any successful strategy. By understanding these rules and how they apply to your organization, you too could become a master of developing a strategic plan to win.

Make Use of the Strategic Planning Process

Always Play the Center – This is the first rule a grandmaster of chess will teach their disciples and is usually a root analysis of their opponent’s loss. Simply put, in order to own your market and execute a successful strategy you must be in the middle and play the outsides. This will allow your strategy to develop constantly, countering your competition and maintaining a competitive advantage. Would you rather be reactive and respond, or cause the response from competitors with the ability to counter? Developing a strategic plan allows you to take the advantageous position.

Small Gains Dominate the Board – You will never win by making huge moves. Suffice it to say, big moves are successfully made in corporate America all the time. However, they are typically very calculated and consist of smaller moves combined into what appears to be a single move. This is easily understood by watching the strategic planning process in a movie like “Oceans 11.” The key learning point here is having the understanding and foresight to think ahead, and to be able to connect multiple smaller elements into a single victory. This can only be done with the use of an iterative process that works on all levels and allows for the execution of multiple smaller plans; plans that can adapt to complex environments and with a bias to action.

Your Weakness Can Be a Huge Advantage – Understanding your weakness within a market and being able to turn that into your advantage will give you a major upper hand. This advantage allows you to steer the competition where you want them to go. It will drive them to a predestinated place where you can plan to dominate. During the Battle of Zama (202 BC) Hannibal did just this. He was outnumbered two-and-half to one (2.5:1) but decided to use his weakness against the advancing Romans. He collapsed his center line, allowing the flanks to surround the Roman Empire from all sides. By turning his weakness into an advantage, he was able to win a major battle.

Strategic Business Planning Yields Greater Rewards

Understanding the Value of All Your Pieces – Chess is a game based on a point system. Each piece has a value, a value based on the pawn. The pawn is worth a single point, and the queen is worth nine. Understanding these values is only half of the game, however. The crucial thing to understand are the roles of each piece. For example, a pawn can only move in a single direction, and never back. Yet, if your pawn reaches the other side of the board safely it can then be transformed into any piece desired. Knights are the only piece that has the ability to move beyond blockades but will always control or defend the same area in relation to themselves. Bishops move diagonally in either direction, while the Rook moves laterally. Knowing what the roles are and their associated point value allows the player to make decisions based on a predetermined metric, a metric that has been studied for centuries and allows statisticians and analysts to determine the best move, as well as develop chess programs. The same principles can be carried over to strategic business planning: make sure you know the value of your pieces.

Understanding Sacrifices and Pseudo-Sacrifices – In chess, a sacrifice is defined as a deliberate exchange of a chess piece of higher value for an opponent’s piece of lower value. This is not to be mistaken for pseudo-sacrifice: a move in which one gives up material. This move involves no risk since the player making the move will gain the points equal or greater within the next few moves. Emmanuel Lasker, during the 19th century, exemplified what a pseudo- sacrifice was during a gentlemen’s game in Hungary. Each piece’s value was determined by a specific type and amount of alcohol. Pawns were a small amount, rooks were small glasses of wine, and the queen was a full bottle of champagne. The rule was that if you captured a piece you must also drink its contents on the spot. Lasker began with what is called a scholar’s mate (playing the queen prematurely), in turn allowing it to be captured. Under normal circumstances, this would be a huge loss, but this pseudo sacrifice was actually a genius move on the part of Lasker. By forcing his opponent to drink a full bottle of champagne he ensured he would win in the long run.

I will close on this: Forbes indicates that only 13% of corporate strategies are executed successfully each year. This is the industry standard and should be embarrassing if you fall into the 87%. However, developing a strategic plan using simple concepts – those that create alignment, are iterative, work on every level with a bias to action- we’re finally able to change and counter the complex landscape. This is what allows that 13 % to be successful.