Chess mate! What does chess have to do with operations strategy?

What’s the most usual image for strategy? Google Pictures leaves no doubt: Chess! These days, the FIDE World Chess Championship is held in Chennai, India. The reigning world champion Viswanathan Anand is playing on home ground against the Norwegian chess wonder Magnus Carlsen. In this regard, one of the readers of my blog asked me to explore the question: What does chess have to do with operation strategy?

What can be learned from Carlsen and Anand? (Photo by Anastasiya Karlovich, FIDE)

What can operation managers learn from Carlsen and Anand? (Photo: Anastasiya Karlovich)

Chess has for long been used as an image for strategy. Writers of business strategy like M. E. Porter, P. Schoemaker, D. Levy, B. Wernerfelt and S. Ghoshal, among many others, have made explicit references to chess in their publications on strategy. There are also a number of good blog posts out there (see bottom of this post), so I do not intend to give a complete answer to the question. Instead, I will discuss three areas where I see strong coherence between chess and operations strategy: Maturity, theory and focus. I encourage you to add to the discussion in the commentary field.

Maturity matters

You do not have to been grand master, if you do not play at the grand master level.

To play, you first need to learn the rules of the game. To win, you have to be better than your competitor. That’s all. Far too often, scholars and managers try to learn from a level which is unattainable for them. If you aim to play Anand or Carlsen, you’re bound to loose. Carlsen will beat you blindfolded while playing hundred of others at the same time. Chess is a game of experience. It is all about recognition of patterns, which you can’t learn instantly. This is why—at any given point—it’s important to play on your strengths (i.e. “core competencies”) and continuously learn and develop (i.e. “continuous improvement”). That goes for business as well. Maturity matters.

Theory matters

Best practices are plentiful and they help.

Beginners to chess often experience loosing quickly for the Scholar’s Mate in only four moves. It’s a usual game stopper at the entrance level. It’s embarrassing (only slightly better than loosing for the Fool’s Mate in two moves…) Blunder’s like these—in chess and business—can be avoided with proper preparations. There’s a vast literature on chess theory, and no excuse to not consult it before a tournament. Both chess and operations management are sciences. Theory helps you sort and understand the complexity of chess and business. Studying chess theory (opening, middlegame and endgame), and practicing it, is absolutely necessary if you want to excel as a chess player. The same goes for operations strategy. Learn the theories and best practices that are important for you, and study those of your competitors. Theory matters.

Focus matters

“Steady effort pays off, even if not always in an immediate, tangible way” (Garry Kasparov, 2007)

I played chess as a child and teenager. More than anything, chess taught me the importance of concentration, logical thinking and perseverance. Businesses that changes operations strategy as often as they update their budgets will never come ahead of their competitors. Most of my blog posts emphasis the importance of having a lasting and focused improvement strategy: a company-specific production system (XPS). I remember that I had a fair amount of success in specializing in a chess opening strategy that most players at my level shunned; the English opening (1. c4). Over time, I had seen most of the usual results of this opening and learned to know the best practices. The point is; you cannot master it all. Staying focused while continuously developing is a key to excellence in chess and business. Focus matters.

The author (in dark purple) and his briother (light purple) making smart moves in the 80s

The author (in dark purple) and his brother (light purple) making smart moves in the 80s.

The relationship between chess and strategy has also been excellently elaborated by others. Here are a few other blog posts and sources I recommend for further reading:

Ps! Thanks to Bjørn R. A. for inspiring this blog post. aims to be customer-oriented. Let me know if you have an idea you want to see covered.

One thought on “Chess mate! What does chess have to do with operations strategy?

  1. Thanks for a fun blog post. Let’s have a game of chess when you’re done with your phd defence 🙂

    More pictures of young Netland in the blog, please!


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