How Thinking Like a Grandmaster Can Help You Grow Your Business This Year

As you’re starting to get ready to create your strategic plan for this coming year, wouldn’t you like to know how a great strategist would approach it? Or, wouldn’t it be nice to have some fresh new ideas about how to think about strategy as you head into your strategic planning process?

Well, if that’s what you’re looking for, I think you’re going to enjoy this week’s post. Note: I’m not a chess master, just someone who appreciates the game and loves strategy in all its forms.

Now, chances are, if you’re like me, you’ve marveled at chess grandmasters. You’ve probably seen some footage of Bobby Fischer playing Boris Spassky. Or maybe you’ve watched a grandmaster on TV (or on video or live) who was playing 10 or 20 people at a time (and winning most of those games). Or maybe, you’ve even dabbled a little in chess, at least enough to know that there are some people who just seem to think at a different level.

Well, despite what you or I might think (i.e. that chess grandmasters must have super high IQs) the reality is that they have very normal IQs (i.e. a normal distribution of IQs). It’s not that they’re “super bright,” it’s that they have a way of thinking that’s different from the rest of us (plus, they’ve spent a massive amount of time mastering the game they love so that they think differently than us).

In other words, it’s not their innate intelligence that lets them win, it’s the quality of their thinking (both at a strategic level and a tactical level) that makes them so good at what they do—which is good news for those of us who are mere mortals because it means that if we learn to think like them, we can become better strategists and winners just like them.

So, with that said, here are a seven principles grandmasters use in chess strategy that can help you grow your business this year.

1. Be Clear on How To Win Your Endgame

Every grandmaster knows that in order to win a chess match, there are certain things that need to be in place—or else they can’t win. For example, if all a grandmaster has left is a King and a Knight (and their opponent just a king), they still can’t win, even though they’re up two pieces to one.

Likewise, a grandmaster knows he can’t win if the bishops are on opposite colors (they’ll take out the pawns) or if he just has a King and a bishop. He also knows he’ll be in trouble if his pawn structure is weak (for example, if he has an unprotected pawn or two pawns on the same file). In other words, by being clear on what his endgame plan is, a grandmaster can then construct the strategies and tactics he’ll use that will allow him to have in place what he needs to win.

In your case, the obvious strategic question would be, “Do you know what’s your endgame is?” For example, do you want to sell? If so, are you putting the strategies and tactics in place to make your company attractive to a buyer? Which buyer? What do that want to buy? What are you currently offering or doing that won’t be of value to them (or they won’t want to buy)? What should you eliminate to make your company more attractive to that buyer? What should you add? Etc. If you want to be a great strategist, always design your strategy for today around your endgame and what you’ll need in place to win.

2. Have a Plan 

This seems so obvious I shouldn’t have to mention it, but it’s not. Watch most amateur chess players and what do they do? Exactly. They sit at the board and play one move at a time without any strategy other than hope (“I hope I win” or “I hope to not lose too badly”). However, no grandmaster does that. Every grandmaster has a strategy in their mind from the very beginning. They know what moves they’re going to make, often based on a classic chess line (there are many), which they’ve studied for years.

Unfortunately, the number of businesses without a clear plan of attack is amazing high. The result is that they tend to make their decisions day by day without regard/reference to a long-term strategy to guide them. This is a huge mistake. Now, while it is true that, “no plan survives first encounter with the enemy,” the real value of planning isn’t in the plan itself, it’s in the thinking that created the plan. Just like the grandmaster who can’t predict what the other person will do, you can’t either. However, by having an overall plan and strategy, you have a better ability to react and make the right moves you need to make in order to win the game. So, make sure you have a killer plan in place this year!

Note: You may want to check out my Double It course to help you do just that.

3. Think About How Your Opponent Will Respond to Your Plan

You’ve undoubtedly heard that grandmasters usually think 3,5,10 or more moves ahead in a chess match, but what you may not have thought about is that process takes into account what they think their opponent will do based on what moves they’re planning to make. It’s that ability to not only think about their  own moves, but their opponent’s moves in light of the moves they’re making, that is one of the differentiators between great chess players and average ones.

Unfortunately, when most small businesses are setting their strategies or making a change in product/service offerings, etc. they rarely think about how their competitors will react. For example, if a business decides to cut their prices to undercut their competitor, they rarely stop to think about how others will respond to that price drop. If they all drop their prices, the competitive advantage of low-cost evaporates and everyone’s margins are down with no gain in market share.

This is one of the reasons why, when you’re picking competitive advantages, you want to find sustainable advantages that are hard to duplicate. Why? Because anytime a change by one competitor begins to get traction, everyone else in that market will tend to adopt that change—as long as it’s easy to implement/make and it’s not very costly. So make sure you think through how your competitors will respond to your actions this year.

4. Watch Your Opponent’s Moves

Number four is different from number three because a grandmaster doesn’t just think about what they want to do and how their opponent will respond, they also watch every single move their opponent makes—and then attempt to guess what their opponent is trying to do/accomplish. Why did they make that move vs. any other move? What are they trying to develop? Are they trying to deceive me? Are they trying to force me to make a move? What are they setting up? Etc. Grandmasters don’t just play their side of the board, they mentally play their opponent’s side as well. Key lesson.

Unfortunately, most small businesses don’t do this either. Very rarely are they aware of their competitors. They don’t shop them. They don’t visit their websites. They’re not on their opponent’s mailing list. They don’t accumulate their opponent’s marketing collateral. Etc.

And that’s all unwise. Why? Because your prospects are checking out your competitors. For example, if you’re a bank and you decide to offer mobile check deposits this year because you think that would be new and creative, you’re behind the eight ball. Chances are that five of the seven banks nearby you already offer it and they offer it free (and you were thinking of charging a buck per deposit item). Bad choice. You’re in the dark, but your prospects aren’t. So watch what your competitors are doing.

5. Know What Stage of the Game You’re Playing

Chess has three distinct phases, known by the creative titling of the opening, the middle game and endgame (I know, very original :-). However, what every grandmaster knows is that the goals and objectives of each phase are radically different. For example, in the opening the goal is to develop pieces and control the center. One of the battle cries of the opening is, “Don’t move the same piece twice.”

However, once the kings have been castled and the middle game begins, it’s about taking territory and exchanging pieces (where you may touch the same piece multiple times). Finally, in the endgame, pawn structure is critical, as is keeping the pieces alive that are necessary to create checkmate. Oh, and in the endgame, the King becomes important vs. in the opening and middle game, where you work hard at protecting your king. In the endgame, you want your King to come out to play because he’s often the crucial player in creating checkmate.

Likewise, in business, you have to know what stage you’re in. I’ve written an entire post about this (which you can access here >>). Each stage has different needs, problems, and strategies. Trying to use the wrong strategy in the wrong phase can be deadly (like moving a king out in the open during the opening phase in chess). So make sure you’re clear what stage your business is in and then use the right strategies for that stage.

6. Focus on Taking Territory/Market Share

There is a principle in chess known as space (or time). But the basic idea, that every grandmaster knows, is that you want to control as much of the board as possible. If you control more space, your opponent has fewer options available for moves. Realizing this principle, grandmasters select moves that will grant them more territory under their control. For example, moving a pawn one space will control two spaces, However, moving a bishop to a certain spot, might control 4,5,6,7 or more spaces. The more territory, the better the odds for winning.

In the case of your business, this would look like taking market share or sealing a deal with a major retail outlet for exclusive distribution rights or designing strategies that would entice your opponent’s customers to make the shift to using you. It’s hard to win when you don’t take more market share. So, make sure you design some strategies this year they will take market share.

7. Always Look for a Better Move

One of the classic mistakes that most chess players make is that as soon as they see a good move, they take it. However, grandmasters know better. in fact, years ago, Emmanuel Lasker (one of the great chess champions) said,

“When you see a good move, wait … look for a better one.”

In other words, don’t go with the first idea. Even if it might be the right move, take the time to see if there might be a better play (and there often is). It’s one of the reasons a lot of chess teachers discourage playing speed chess. Why? Because it discourages the thought process of thinking harder and finding the better move.

Similarly, in strategic planning, it’s easy to go through a one or two-day process and feel like, “We just need to decide.” However, the best moves often aren’t as obvious and they require some time and thought. So, while you may be tempted to go with the first good idea, force yourself to trust the process. Take the time to think, do research, and keep searching for a better move. Why? Because you just might find one.

So, if you want to make this year a better year for your business, why don’t you review and use these seven principles from the world of a chess grandmaster to help you build a better plan. They just might be the key to your growth this year!

1. Be clear on how to win your endgame
2. Have a plan
3. Think about how your opponent will respond to your plan
4. Watch your opponent’s moves
5. Know what stage of the game you’re playing
6. Focus on taking territory/market share
7. Always look for a better move

To your accelerated success,

Key Question: What other lessons have you learned about strategy from chess or one of your favorite hobbies? Add your thoughts below in the comments section (or click here >> if you’re reading this by RSS or email)