The Worst Strategy Metaphor in Use Today

Choose your business metaphors wisely, because they say a lot about how you view the world.

 

 

One of the minor annoyances present in the business world is the use of metaphors that are resoundingly misfit.

How often do we talk about “blocking and tackling,” or “moving the ball down the field,” or “hitting singles and doubles,” or going for the “Hail Mary” in our everyday professional lives?

How many times have you heard even these simple ones mixed up, as in “I think it’ll be a home run, but the boss keeps moving the goal posts…”

Often. Right?

But every now and then, a metaphor is used so often it becomes a paradigm that is dangerous.

The metaphor of business as a “chess match” is one of them; and I’ll tell you why.

Chess and chess matches, when viewed in the light of the complexity and ambiguity of the business environment, are purely tactical. Chess is tactics. I write this despite the existence of a body of literature suggesting that the preparation, staging, execution, and ultimately winning of chess matches amounts to exacting preparation for business leaders…Strategic nirvana.

I’d argue it’s analytic nirvana–necessary but insufficient for a strategic metaphor.

Alas, chess as strategy is a bad metaphor for business mortals. While chess allows us to illustrate the depth of analytic thought on an issue (the best masters of chess can see deeply into a match to judge moves and patterns); it lacks the breadth of conceptual thought necessary to be an active analog for business strategy.

Mastery of tactical depth counts for something, to be sure. But mastery of strategic breadth, on the other hand, counts for everything.

The issue is that we conflate the two…Badly.

The most magnificent Chess minds spend thousands and thousands of hours mastering tactics. They learn every potential combination of openings and defenses. They spend their lives immersed within the very box of patterns and potential moves that, for some reason, has become synonymous with “strategy.”

They do this, and yet they have been mastered by machines. Think about that for a moment, and you can start to see why the game is based on patterns and repetition vs. intuitive, virtuosic strategic brilliance. The mechanistic logic of chess is its own prison, and thus is the reason chess is a bad metaphor for business.

Allow me to create the mental image of business as a chess match, then you be the judge of whether it rises to the level of a sufficient strategic paradigm:

Imagine that you and I both agree to play in a business arena where we:

  • Start with the same resources
  • Agree to the same set of moves
  • Operate on the exact same game board
  • Disregard comparative advantage
  • Agree not to move pieces in any innovative manner
  • Operate in a purely zero sum environment
  • Keep all moves open and transparent
  • Avoid arbitrarily upgrading or switching out pieces for pieces with more power
  • Prevent the lowly from ruling the mighty (as in the illustration above)
  • Avoid outside sources of power, resupply, or leverage (i.e., capital, partnerships, brand equity)
  • Will on average play to a draw if we both play the game as well as it can be played (“…chess is a draw” according to famous grandmaster Gary Kasparov)

…and so on.

Are we now engaged in a strategic struggle for the ages?

No.

We’ve chopped all the degrees of strategic freedom save two: Our experience and our intellect. All the real world strategic levers I’ve outlined above lie in the negative space of a chess match.

In short, once you’ve taken nearly every strategic variable off the table, you are left with a chess match. It’s two people matching wits. That, folks, isn’t strategy, it’s a contest. It’s a highly regulated, constrained caricature of real world strategy.

Chess is a closed system. Real world strategy is an open system.

Strategy is about exploiting means to achieve ends. The first means anyone exploits in a strategic contest is whether to play on the terms available. While chess matches do offer the option of a “surrender,” to do so is to incur a loss and to provide a massive advantage to one’s adversary.

A second, and very important means, is the means of overinvestment. Overloading a single point of weakness (or strength) at a single point in time is a key real world capability. Put a team together to go after a single customer? Go ahead, it’s the real world. Overload on a chess board is a sequential thing, not an instantaneous one.

Other strategy games offer exit and overload options (like folding or going “all in” in the game of poker)–limiting losses or allowing asymmetric bets based on early indications that the game is or isn’t worth playing.

These moves are analogous to real world actions. But, they aren’t really an option in Chess.

If business were such that one could simply study all the moves in history and play the next match, it wouldn’t be all that tough, would it? That is essentially what has happened in chess. If it were so in business, IBM would have developed the Deep Blue machine for business back in the 1990’s and we would all be working for IBM at this point.

That, my friends, may be the best evidence for the misfit metaphor: If a computer can outwit a grandmaster (and they pretty much all can at this point), the game is one of logic and pure horsepower; not one of strategy.

If it were a game of strategy, the grandmaster would unplug the computer first, and then ask it to make its first move–while smiling of course.

Add to all this the cardinal observation that properly played chess will typically result in a draw (as noted above) and you have a very dangerous metaphor for your organization (implicitly, if you play well and lose, you did something wrong…Not always the case in business and life).

So, what?

I write this not to split hairs, but to illustrate the importance of the metaphors we put in front of our organizations–especially during times of change. So many of the metaphors we use are quirky; but some of them are downright dangerous.

If we are to pursue an enlightened approach to strategy, then using metaphors that speak to openness, flexibility, and canniness are much more on point than those that involve pure intellect applied to closed systems that imply no loss as long as strict discipline is maintained.

The metaphors you choose say a lot about how you view the world: Do you view your organization’s business environment as a closed, zero sum game, or something different?

File this one under strategy, change leadership, and perhaps curmudgeonly explication (as if LinkedIn needs more of that).

Note: The current Carlsen – Anand world chess championship match inspired thoughts for this article. Though the game of chess may not be a good business metaphor, the drama of championship chess matches can be quite a thing to behold and study.

Geoff Wilson is a strategy executive focused on the articulation of practical strategic principles for leadership. He also harbors the specific indignity of blundering into a fool’s mate one time in the 7th grade. He has just started a Twitter presence and still isn’t sure what to make of it, so consider following: @GeoffTWilson

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