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What Chess Can Teach Us About (Agile) Transformation

Easy to learn, hard to master


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Tristan Libersat

2 years ago | 6 min read

I love chess. When I was a kid, we used to play chess at school and there was this guy who was a very good player. He was really impressive. Each and every move was calculated and he won all the time without even giving us a chance to understand what happened.

I think it had an influence on me and discouraged me from pursuing chess. Long afterwards, in 2017, I worked with someone who was learning chess. He watched videos, took online courses and was playing at every pause.

That’s when I decided I wanted to give it a chance again. We are now lucky enough to live in a world when we can find any content we want, anytime, anywhere, and robots can beat humans, making game analysis deeper and accessible to us.

I’m clearly not an ace, but I learn. Consistently. During my journey towards the Grandmaster title (lol), I have learned several aspects that resonate with transformation management (agile or not).

Easy to learn, hard to master

Even if you never played chess, you know the rules. They are simple. There is a square board with light and dark squares (8x8). Each player gets a set of pieces, either black or white, with a specific setup configuration. Each piece has its own way of moving and capturing.

White moves first. There are a few additional rules like en passant, castling, check, draw or pawn promotion. The goal of the game is to prevent the adverse king from escaping (i.e. he has no legal move to escape check).

Less than one hour is required to understand these basic rules. However, that doesn’t mean everyone will suddenly become a great player just by knowing the rules.

Mastering chess takes a long time, maybe even a lifetime. It’s an ongoing journey. But making mistakes and reflecting on the learnings enables us to improve. Simply watching a famous game is not enough to play like a master.

We need to go through this game analysis / reflection / experimentation loop, and we need to iterate a lot to reach high performance. That’s exactly the same with (agile) transformation.

We know the goal, we know the constraints (rules), now we have to iterate to build our own way.

Piece combination

Early in the learning process, you realize your pieces don’t move alone. In order to make an real impact, you have to direct all your pieces to a specific direction, or combine them to setup a deadly trap. All the pieces are important, even the pawns.

All you have to do is to detect the opponent’s weakness and direct your attacks on this point. Easy (on paper). In other words, you will decide on a goal to achieve, and then, combine the specificities and strengths of all your pieces in order to achieve that goal.

A combined attack focused on one specific point is much more likely to succeed rather than pieces each pointing at their own target.

There are several lessons we can learn from this. First, a clear, engaging, agreed and well-communicated strategy is the best way to align the organization towards an overarching goal.

Then, focusing on one target at a time is the best way to reach that target. Trying to solve all the problems at the same time will only result in a misalignment and confusing communication.

Fortunately, we’re not at war, we can allow ourselves to bring most of our forces in the battle. Finally, each and every member of the organization is important. Even those who seem to bring less to the picture.

Stages of the game

However, not everyone will “hold” the same value depending on which stage we’re in. In chess, there are considered to be three different phases:

  • Opening: this is the first stage of the game. During the opening phase, the players make their initial moves. They develop their pieces, start to control strategic outposts and build their pawn structure. There are usually few captures at this stage. This is a very theoritical phase that has been studied for centuries and during which we often apply the moves mechanically.
  • Middlegame: then, it begins. First (significant) blood. Things become messy, pieces are captured, strategies and tactics (we’ll see that in a moment) are put in place and executed. Battle rages on.
  • Endgame: at some point, there are only a few pieces left on the board. That’s when endgame begins. At this point, each piece counts and pawns are more important than ever. For a good reason: they can become the more powerful piece of the board, a queen!

Understanding these stages is the key in both chess and transformation because the focus is likely to be very different from a phase to another, as well as the people we work with.

Various models such as the 10 stages of the business lifecycle, the adoption curve, or Tuckman’s stages of group development can help us understand where we are at and appropriately decide what to do.

It also relates to the ShuHaRi model where learners start by applying the practices (opening moves), and then firsts difficulties/learnings occur and they start to reflect and adapt to the situations.

Principles, strategy and tactics

Another interesting insight is the difference between principles, strategy and tactics. In chess, principles are general guidelines we have to keep in mind during the game.

We call strategy all the specific principles we will decide to follow in order to create a positioning advantage during the game. This long-term thinking will eventually allow us to seize an opportunity and deploy a specific maneuver (tactic) to take the advantage.

Here are some examples:

  • Principles: develop pieces quickly, protect the king, control the center, etc.
  • Strategies: based on these principles, let’s assume the adverse king is castled. A simple strategy we can adopt is to change focus and not control the center anymore but aim all of our pieces towards the adverse king. If there is no immediate tactic to deploy, we can position our pieces at strategic outposts in order to maximize the chances an opportunity arises.
  • Tactics: at some point, our good position will unlock an opportunity or the opponent will make a mistake and we will seize it to progressively establish our advantage. For example, sacrificing the queen may force the opponent to expose his king and result in a sequence of moves leading to checkmate.

During transformations, these differences are extremely important. Lean and Agile thinking bring a set of values and principles to keep in mind such as small self-organizing teams, customer satisfaction, or continuous improvement.

Based on these principles, an organization will decide on a direction for the change that will drive the usage of these principles.

For example, an organization that chooses to focus on innovation will probably not exactly follow the same principles than one that focus on reducing costs of an established product.

And even if they do, the organizations will look very different in the field.

Finally, implementing a specific strategy may unlock the conditions to follow known patterns (tactics) such as flow-based team with work-in-progress limits for teams whose work is highly unpredictable or Value Stream Mapping for process improvement.

Psychology

Let’s finish this article with the psychological aspect. The topic is well-known and I will not explain how complex it is in practice to influence and predict opponent’s next moves.

But the point is: some degree of anticipation is key to setup the right conditions for our next moves. My first transformation as an agile coach was painful because I wanted to go straight to the point.

That simply didn’t work with the teams because they weren’t in the right conditions to hear what I said. Setting up the context and conditions may require some strategy and initial moves before we can finally apply the tactic we had in mind.

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Tristan Libersat

My Agile journey began in 2013 when, trained by Jeff Sutherland (co-creator of Scrum), I started as a freshly new Scrum Master at Dailymotion. There I learnt the hard way the challenges of business agility at a time when DevOps and Agile at scale where not buzz words yet. Then I took a new challenge and joined the French Ministry of Justice as one of its first Scrum Masters, proving the efficiency and compatibility of Lean-Agile approaches with Public Sector. I am now a Lean-Agile Coach & Trainer at Capgemini Toulouse, France. I have trained, coached and mentored hundreds of people on the field of actions to guide them towards a successful transformation and high performance. I am certified in all of the key roles of a Lean-Agile transformation: Scrum Master, Product Owner, Release Train Engineer, change agent (SAFe Program Consultant) and management. In addition to my coaching activities, I spend my free time reading, writing and translating agile-related content.


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