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Leading Change, One Move at a Time

Many years ago, a renowned European chess grandmaster played an exhibition match against a New York amateur—and lost. The champion was renowned for his chessboard strategy— for his ability to plan a dozen or more moves ahead as a game developed. At the postmatch press conference the amateur was asked how many moves ahead he had planned in defeating the master. "Only one," he replied. "The right one."

There, in a nutshell, lies the key to success in a constantly changing world. The amateur chess player wasn't talking about rigidity when he used the word "right." He was talking about flexible, creative reaction; about assessing each position as it developed on the board and then making the move that needed to be made at the moment. He did have an overall game plan, but he didn't frustrate himself trying to anticipate everything his opponent might do five or 20 moves in the future. He knew he couldn't out-think the master. So keeping his basic plan in mind, he tailored his own moves to the immediate possibilities inherent in each position as it arose. And by sticking to that strategy he won a famous victory.

Which is exactly what the most successful leaders do today in response to the constantly shifting and always uncertain facts of life in the modern business world. They work out a general plan for the future, pin it up in the corners of their minds and then focus on what's happening right now. They assess the possibilities inherent in each developing situation, decide what needs to be done and then make the move that they think will be most advantageous to their company's prosperity and on-going strength. Sometimes the move will be an offensive, attacking one. Sometimes it will be a tactical side step. Sometimes it will be an unexpected counterthrust. But whatever its character and consequence, it will be based on the best analysis of immediate circumstances.

In a world of technological advances, competitive maneuvers, economic fluctuations, customer demands and global markets, every business strategy (like every chess game) is filled with moves you don't anticipate. No one can assess all the possibilities.

Flexibility, open-mindedness, the capacity to roll with changing circumstances, the ability to absorb and assess new information and to apply it creatively to new situations—those are the strengths of the winning, change-adept leader today. And when those strengths are missing, leaders are bound to lose. As Grandmaster Fred Reinfeld said in Why You Lose at Chess, (a book every aspiring business leader would do well to study): "You lose because you're stubborn. You have prejudices and preconceived notions—and you refuse to give them up." That's unforgivable, Reinfeld concludes. And doubly so in business where there is a good deal more to be lost than just a game.

In a chess match, each position has its own unique possibilities and each opponent has his or her own ideas about how to capitalize on them. But as a leader of a team or an organization, you have one enormous advantage over the chess player sitting alone at the board. All of your chess pieces can think, too. The pieces on a chessboard are ranked according to their power. But as all good chess players know, any piece on the board can deliver a great win if its potential is fully unleashed. The same holds for each and every member of the team you lead.

So encourage them all. Help them all to develop their own special powers, let them know they are valued, ask for their input, and listen to what they have to say. But above all, make sure that everyone knows that success in a group process. Any single member of the team can come up with a great move, but only the combined creativity, effort, and passion of the entire team will give your organization the win it's looking for.