Success in the game of chess is based on principles that apply in other strategic thinking situations (as introduced in the prior article in this series).
Patterns as Essential Element of Strategy
The focus of this article is further developing the concept of patterns in strategy, I will return to the example of chess introduced in the prior article. Patterns are a common element of all strategic situations.
Adriaan de Groot concludes, in his research on chess mastery (see the Wikipedia entry), that:
“it is the ability to recognize patterns, which are then memorized, which distinguished the skilled players from the novices.”
These two distinguishing characteristics – pattern recognition and memory – are relevant to strategic thinking in any domain, not just chess. My straightforward recommendation for improving your strategic thinking is to develop your ability to recognize and learning patterns.
Chess is a game of patterns with colorful names like the Catalan Opening, the Sicilian Defense and the King’s Indian Attack. These patterns -albeit jargon – help chess players improve their game strategy.
Patterns are easily observed in other strategic contexts. In business, strategists have knowledge of patterns like double-entry accounting, the CAP-M financial model, and Porter’s Five Forces of industry attractiveness. The game of American football has colorful names for patterns such as the flying wedge, the wishbone, goal line stands, and red zones. The US Army has an offensive operation known as Envelopment which was used with great success at the opening of the Desert Storm operation in Kuwait in 1990. Notice that each domain (or strategic context) has its own patterns (and jargon); doesn’t it make sense that mastery involves the ability to recognize a pattern within a domain?
Next, let’s examine the importance of Adriaan de Groot’s finding that chess experts have an ability to memorize the patterns in such a way that they can then access the memory and apply it to the game. Stated simply, chess masters learn and apply information about chess patterns just as people in other contexts learn and apply patterns.
Most people have practiced rote memorization, and know that they need to keep the task simple. Further, they need to reinforce with repetition to put it into long-term memory (think about experiences with multiplication table drills). In chess, rote memorization of the rules is a starting point. Rote memorization falls apart when we have to apply those rules to strategic situations.
(See the “sidebar” at the bottom of this post for an interesting examination how IBM’s Deep Blue computer bested Gary Kasparov – and its implications for strategic thinking.)
Through the work of David Ausubel others, academics now widely agree that people learn new things by associating new knowledge with related and already-known knowledge. Children learn letters, then words, then sentences. Knowledge is built up from simple to complex. Memory becomes a cognitive structure of related patterns.
Using Ausubel’s constructivist approach, we can theorize that chess players first learn a few patterns, establishing a basic cognitive structure. Then the player adds to the cognitive structure. At some point they reach mastery, and hold a rich and robust scaffold of knowledge.
The player progressively gains expertise as they add new knowledge to cognitive structure. They find that the new information helps them to refine, sharpen, and correct existing ideas.
Chunking is another concept of memory that is especially helpful for short-term memory and for moving concepts from short-term memory into long-term memory. For example, telephone numbers have chunks of digits that we know as country codes, area codes, exchange codes, and phone numbers. As a learning strategy, look for chunks of knowledge.
Neuroscientist Daniel Bor says there are three activities involved in chunking. The first is the search for chunks. The second is the noticing and memorizing of those chunks. The third is the use of the chunks we’ve already built up.
Consider chunks as a gateway to patterns:
Patterns are a tool for chunking memory.
And chunks are a tool for organizing patterns.
It seems that the quantity and quality of patterns in memory is a key to opportunity recognition, and therefore strategic thinking. It is fair to say that within each domain (warfare, chess, business, etc.) there are many patterns. The goal is to organize and structured knowledge in such a way that the brain can access the memory for patterns. This gives the person the ability to quickly match the pattern and find what is interesting.
How? Use chunking to commit some early patterns to memory, probably through some sort of rote learning or a simple analogy or a mnemonic. Further enrich them with examples. Now, practice scaffolding – working through analogy to relate new patterns to old patterns.
As an additional suggestion for memory, patterns, and culture, check out my description of Kolb’s learning cycle in this post.
Conclusion – Questions for Practical Application of Concepts
The game of chess provides a starting point for identifying some of the fundamentals of strategic thinking. In this article, I identified patterns as a generic element of all strategies, and discussed how the strategist recognizes patterns and memorizes them.
Are you alert for patterns? Do you practice analogies? Could you list the most important and essential patterns associated with your organization? Do you try to falsify your knowledge and strategies?
Do you agree that the ability to apprehend patterns and comprehend patterns is important to strategic thinking?
On Chess Patterns and the True Nature of Intelligence
In 1997, IBM’s supercomputer “Deep Blue” defeated chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov in a highly publicized six-game match. Are there implications for the study of strategic thinking? Beating Kasparov was an engineering feat, not a breakthrough in strategic thinking. Deep Blue was programmed in a way that is akin to rote memory rather than the generation of insights. James Somers points out:
“Deep Blue won by brute force. For each legal move it could make at a given point in the game, it would consider its opponent’s responses, its own responses to those responses, and so on for six or more steps down the line. With a fast evaluation function, it would calculate a score for each possible position, and then make the move that led to the best score. What allowed Deep Blue to beat the world’s best humans was raw computational power. It could evaluate up to 330 million positions a second while Kasparov could evaluate only a few dozen before having to make a decision.
It’s hard to make the case that a computer has exercised an intelligence that we could call humanistic or strategic. Deep Blue simply recognized patterns and matched them against a repository of patterns. Perhaps we could say that it generated insights, but those insights were of low quality compared to what humans can do (for examples, see my articles on insight generation by the inventors of 3M’s Post It notes or the field researchers for Absolut Vodka).
The above quote was from an article titled “The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think” in the November 2013 issue of Atlantic Magazine. The “man” referenced in Somers’ article is Pulitzer Prize winning author Douglas Hofstadter, who won for his book Godel Escher Bach in 1980. Hofstadter says that the fluid nature of mental categories is the core of human intelligence. Somers’ article quotes Hofstadter and explains,
“Cognition is recognition,” he likes to say. He describes “seeing as” the essential cognitive act: you see some lines as “an A,” you see a hunk of wood as “a table,” you see a meeting as “an emperor-has-no-clothes situation” and a friend’s pouting as “sour grapes” and a young man’s style as “hipsterish” and on and on throughout your day.
Hofstadter suggests that thinking and learning is mostly a process of forming analogies: something reminds you of something that reminds you of yet something else. Mental categories are the way that we organize the knowledge structure.
We’ve all had conversations like where the overall direction of the conversation is set by the way that each person’s recollections are stimulated by something that another said: We hear something and say, “that reminds me of _____ .” We make the connection – have an insight – and the conversation continues. Not surprisingly, strategy is developed through conversation. Initially, the conversations in organizations are about sharing each person’s sense of the situation and the solution to others. The agreement of the stakeholders is the “buy in.”
The practical advice for the strategic thinker: become more aware of your use of analogies. How is one strategic situation (pattern) similar and different from another? Watch for a future article that about two well-known CEO’s who changed strategic contexts: one used patterns and analogies well and was successful; the other didn’t.