Teaching Your Team to Play Chess

Playing chess game. defeating the Queen.I have written before about the importance of knowing how to play chess — mastering the art of placing organizational “chess pieces” in pivotal positions in preparation for future impact. In today’s ever more complex world (yes, it really does feel like you are now playing against three different opponents at once), it is not enough to have a single leader master this long-term game of skill and strategy. Now more than ever, you need to teach other organizational leaders to play chess as well.

According to a recent article in strategy+business, in a study of 6,000 senior leaders only 8% of those individuals rated as strategic leaders. Eight percent! Yes, that would appear to mean the odds are stacked against having more than one strategic leader in a single organization. However, all hope is not lost! There are steps you can take to build a strategic culture within your organization. Think of it as chess lessons. Not everyone will enjoy it or become an expert, but at least they will understand the rules of the game.

Lesson #1: Everyone needs to know the end goal. When you are transparent about where you are going, your people can do a better job of helping you get there. In the military, the concept is known as “commanders intent.” It came about because in combat (or in today’s challenging environment) things rarely go exactly according to plan. If squad leaders don’t know the ultimate goal, they might make a decision that makes perfect sense given their limited information, but could ultimately undermine the larger intent. Let your people help you be successful by making sure they are clear on the end goal.

Lesson #2: Encourage new solutions. As a general statement, those closest to the “front line” can often see solutions that may not be considered by those with a different vantage point. Is such input encouraged, or is it squashed by those with more experience or expertise? Discounting input because of who is offering it closes the door on a potential strategic advantage under the mistaken assumption that those who have done something longer can see it more clearly. Fresh eyes can observe a lot of things that those who see something every day overlook.

Lesson #3: “Failure” needs to be seen as part of the process. No one wins at chess without losing a few pieces along the way, and your team will never try to play the game if they get penalized for what, in effect, is part of the process. Make it safe to try something, tweak it as needed, and try again. The only way that is a failure is if you stop the first time something doesn’t work as planned. Make adjustments an expected part of the process and you will foster creative problem solving among your team.

Teaching chess takes time, but the fundamental steps above are a good place to start.

A Method to the Mess

Messy Desk

My desk is a mess. I don’t mean at this moment in time, I’m making a general statement. My desk is a mess 90+% of the time. I have quit apologizing for the way it looks because frankly, after all these years, it seems unlikely that I’m going to change my way of functioning. While many areas of my life are neat and tidy, I think my desk is probably a reflection of how my brain works best — nestled between fluid piles of information that I can adapt and respond to at a moment’s notice. You’d be amazed at the opportunities for innovation that surround me every day as I sit at my desk . . .

Because here’s the thing . . . innovation is messy . . . and I happen to believe that fostering a culture of innovation is part of a leader’s job. Think about it. No matter how many detailed, well-thought-out plans you may put together related to a new opportunity (and we put together a lot!), it’s never going to go exactly as you planned. Even the military — which I consider to be very planful and orderly — has something known as “commander’s intent” to let personnel know what success looks like, so when things don’t go as planned they can find alternate routes to achieve the end goal. Commander’s intent is a clear acknowledgement that things get messy, and leaders need to have a comfort level maneuvering through unexpected detours and roadblocks if they hope to have a successful outcome.

Admittedly, every organization beyond a small start-up also needs individuals who ensure that systems and processes are implemented . . . there a many people in our organization with desktops that don’t have a paper clip out of place. I value and admire these people, I just don’t happen to be one of them. My assistant is, bless her soul, which frees me to build a culture of innovation with the confidence that our infrastructure remains solid.

Maybe you can be a role model for the messiness of exploring unique possibilities and still have a pristine desktop. Good for you! (You were probably one of those kids who could pat their head and rub their tummy at the same time, too.) My point is, the nice neat rules and processes that got us to this point are not likely to spur the breakthrough thinking that will be needed to prepare for and respond to a totally new set of variables. And as a leader, part of your job is to create an environment where it is safe to try new things, change course, and if necessary start again to reach the desired end goal.

One final point for the tidy types out there . . . a messy desk is not necessarily the same as a disorganized one. You would be amazed at how quickly I can find a specific document buried in one of my piles. I can often get my hands on it more quickly than if it was neatly filed away. In the same way, while you’re in the midst of it, innovation may sometimes look like a bunch of disconnected piles of activity. It’s only when you take the long view that you realize, there really was a method to the mess.