5 chess principles for internet business practitioners

Gamification and how we can apply mechanics and principles from the world of games to our products is an idea on the rise, but it does have its limits. Have you considered gamifying yourself as a business practitioner? Chess is a good place to start.

Serious chess nerds have linked improvement in their game to enhanced business acumen. This is not completely unrealistic, given the well-documented positive influence of chess on child development in areas like self-esteem, organisational skills, better thinking and problem-solving abilities.

Chess-playing managers recognise many parallels between chess and business. In both cases you are required to make decisions (by which you live or die), based on your assessment of ever-changing competitive positions. After every move, you need to consider your own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of the opposition. You have to anticipate your opponent’s moves. Plans don’t always work out and you might have to adjust your strategy based on counter-play. Both require a level of theoretical grounding, sometimes more implied than formalised.
Here is a list of five principles internet business practitioners can take from chess:

1. Plan first, then move. Chess players HAVE to move, but how do they decide what to do next? World Champion Alexander Alekhine warned against the novice tendency of looking for the best next move. Instead, find the best plan and then consider moves in execution of that plan.

Because the Internet is such a rapidly-changing environment, some traditional project methodologies are incompatible with web development. This explains the rise of iterative and agile development frameworks, where shorter release cycles keep up with evolving requirements. Still, within that context, successful teams can articulate why the next move is the best use of resources given the longer-term plan.

2. Look for a better move. There is likely to be more than one path to achieving your goals. Emanuel Lasker, another world champion, said “when you see a good move, look for a better one”. Creating a culture of critically reviewing assumptions and decisions will result in fewer mistakes and superiority in the longer term.
The founders of group buying giants, Groupon first “screwed around”, in their words, with a platform called The Point. Out of this project, they took one component – collective buying – and spun it into a phenomenon. Instead of pushing ahead, Andrew Mason and his team paused to challenge their own ideas and found the winning move.

3. Lose some to win some. Anyone who’s ever worked on a tech project will be aware of the number of things that can go wrong. As Savielly Tartakover wrote about chess: “The blunders are all there on the board, waiting to be made.”

In fact, you must lose games in order to improve. The rock star of chess, Gary Kasparov, pointed out that making mistakes is a normal part of the decision-making process. Accept it. Successful players review their own games afterwards, looking particularly at mistakes, with the purpose of distilling lessons from it.

4. Be the chess player, not the chess pieces (With apologies to Ralph Charell). A key principle of reaching superiority in chess is to get all your pieces involved in the action. In business, people should be deployed according to their unique strengths, roles clearly defined and obstacles minimised. Set the direction and allow the troops to get on with it.

Co-founder of the WordPress theme supplier, Woothemes, Adii recently wrote a blog post about how he evolved from do-it-all to focusing on business development, while hiring specialists “better than myself at something” to execute the strategy. In his words, embracing this notion of applying people to their individual strengths “has probably been the best (business) decision.”

PS: Were it not for challenging labour legislation, I’d add the principle of “trading off” inactive pieces, i.e. getting rid of them.

5. Time management. Chess is usually played against the clock. Players need to be disciplined with their time, but must be able to recognise critical positions that require extra thinking minutes. Fast decision-making has its place in business (and is typically admired), but knowing when to spend additional time focusing on the problem and considering the various options, along with likely consequences, will almost certainly result in a more accurate decision.

By 2005, professional online network LinkedIn needed a way to break even. A decision had to be made as cash reserves were running out. With a base of 5 million members to monetise the answer seemed obvious: introduce a bundle of often-requested features, which members were willing to pay for, at $15 monthly.

This would almost certainly lead to profitability. A less popular alternative was to change the entire introductions system. Up until then it was only possible to contact people outside your network via a shared connection. The idea was to allow introductions without intermediaries — at a fee. This move was a game-changer for LinkedIn, and the executive team took enough time, despite the pressure, to weigh it up carefully.

image: capitano_teo



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