Chess, Patterns, Analogy, and Strategic Thinking (Part 2)

Patterns & Strategic ThinkingSuccess 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.

Recognizing 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?

Memorizing Patterns

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?

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Sidebar:

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.

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Strategic Thinking versus the “Facilitation Fluff” of Strategic Planning

Picture of marshmellow fluff

Too often, companies hire professional facilitators to support their strategic planning meetings but get nothing more than fluff. Many of these facilitators (under the claim of being a certified and master facilitator) have only a superficial understanding of strategy. They help the meeting produce something – but that something is definitely not strategy. Instead they help expensive executives and managers facilitate the production of fluff statements.

This article is not an attack on the idea of facilitation of meetings. Indeed, many meetings are wasteful and frustrating; and to be clear, a facilitator can be helpful.  However, experience shows that many facilitators push their technique at the expense of strategic thinking.

Mission, Vision, and Values: Is This Simply “Polishing the Doorknobs?”

Statements of mission, vision, and values are important; especially to small businesses. It is a good idea to have written something on paper about mission, vision, and values.  JUST DON”T TELL YOURSELF THAT YOU ARE PRODUCING STRATEGY!

  • A mission tells the organization its purpose
  • A vision establishes a verifiable future
  • A statement of values expresses those aspirations thought to be important.

If you already have a reasonably good statement, don’t let a facilitator waste your time on refreshing or rewriting them. It’s just an exercise in wordsmithing.  This activity is “doorknob polishing;” the doorknob is functional (the statement has been written), but there is not need to make it gleam and impress others.

And, while we’re at it…..

Strategic Plans are Documents – Let’s Hope that We Can Find a Strategy

In the last 3 weeks, I have reviewed three statements of strategy.  Only 1 of the 3 documents actually had something that I would recognize as a strategy.  The other two were just statements of goals and aspirations.  The one good strategy document clearly showed the nature of the business situation and constructed a focused set of guiding actions that would address the business situation. The good strategy was the result of insights that came from thinking strategically.e

Interestingly, the “strategic plan” that was produced by a professional facilitator looked great. However, I could find no strategy. It was attractive and concise, but an exemplar of fluff.  It probably worked fine to for internal alignment, but INTERNAL ALIGNMENT DOES NOT MAKE A DOCUMENT A STRATEGY!

How do I know? If I gave this document to a competitor of the company they would just yawn. If it were truly a good strategy, the reaction would be to mount a counter-response to avoid loss of advantage.  One of the acid tests of a good strategy is simply this: would your competitors be worried if they saw your strategy?

Facilitators and the Myth of High-Energy Meetings

Granted (again) that meetings are frustrating, boring, and wasteful; most of us would prefer entertainment and energy – even fun.  A facilitator that knows lots of good facilitation techniques can create the illusion of progress.  But it is really a dulling of the pain.

Your goal should NOT be to have a high-energy strategic planning meeting. It should be to design a good strategy….one that provides the organizational focus, leverage, investment guidance, and policy guidance.  As I wrote in a prior article, any written statements might be as straightforward as describing the objectives, scope, and advantages.

If you are really interested in creating a strategy that provides your organization a competitive advantage, you need to do the hard work of strategic thinking.

Hard Work – Nice Guys Finish Last

The truth is that strategy (in general) strategic thinking (in particular) is hard work.  Strategic thinking produces insights. This insight generation can be creatively fulfilling and powerful.  In my experience, this requires these essentials:

  • Quiet and undistracted time for individual reflection
  • Facts and data, not just gut feeling and aspirations
  • Listening to others, even if we have to patiently work with those who “think out loud”
  • A tolerance of ambiguity
  • A framework for taking strategic insights and putting them into a strategy

My own experience in facilitating strategy is this: you have to be clear in your own mind what good strategy looks like, and be able to discern it from doorknob polishing fluff.  You have to help your client find insights and knit those insights into a coherent set of activities that positions the organization’s resources in a logical way to meet serious and proximate competitive challenges.

There are thousands of charismatic facilitators who have a confused understanding of strategy as mission, visions, values, goals and the like. Facilitation fluff is common.

Do you agree that facilitation fluff is common and a problem? How have you seen it in practice? Do you agree that strategic thinking and insights needs a subtle and nuanced approach to finding insights and applying them?

Strong-Minded Thinkers find the “One Thing:” How Curly’s Advice Applies to Thinking Strategically

The 1991 movie Cityslickers provides a great lesson for strategists on the vital topic of focus and provides an excellent introduction to strong-mindedness.

Actor Billy Crystal plays the role of Mitch Robbins, a 39-year old man with a mid-life crisis. Mitch and his two friends take a trip to a Western US dude ranch, where they will participate in a cattle drive. Jack Palance plays the role of Curly, the tough cowboy who will supervise the cattle drive.

Mitch and Curly do not like each other at first. However, as they spend time together, Mitch discovers that Curly is wise to life. In this important scene, the two are riding through canyons, talking:

 Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [points index finger skyward] This.

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.

Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”

Curly[smiles and points his finger at Mitch] That’s what you have to find out.

There you have it! The secret to life is to find the one thing that you need to stick to. It’s a line of dialogue that provides profound advice for those who want to become strong minded and improve their strategic thinking skills.

Before exploring examining what finding the one thing means in the sense of thinking strategically, let’s explain how Mitch discovered his “one thing:”

Curly and Mitch must deliver a pregnant cow’s calf. Mitch names the calf Norman and informally adopts it. The final test of the drive involves crossing a dangerous river during a violent storm. The men successfully drive most of the herd across the river, except for Norman, who is caught up in the river’s rapid current. Mitch impulsively chases after him, successfully lassoing the calf, but in turn gets caught in the rapids, nearly drowning. All are saved. Then, Mitch reveals that during his dangerous struggle to save Norman, he realized his “one thing” is his family.

The sweet and sentimental part of the story is that Mitch’s one thing was his family, and he returned from his trip with a renewed sense of values. This is not uncommon in Hollywood movies, Mary Poppins being another example of a husband/father gaining perspective of the importance of family.

Insights and Strong Mindedness

Mitch’s realization of his one thing came by way of insight, and it came to him as he faced extreme danger. As I have explained in earlier articles, insights are sudden realizations of the true nature of something. The purpose of strategic thinking is to foster insights.

Now, here is the connection to strong mindedness.  If a person can find that insight of the one thing AND act upon it determinedly, we can say that they are strong minded.  People who lack this strong mindedness either are missing the insight that reveals their personal values and/or the determination to put the values into action. Both ingredients need to be present. I’m not saying it is easy, but it doesn’t need to be a grandly-sophisticated endeavor.

Consider this a definition of strong-mindedness:

The ability to stay true to important principles.

Strong Mindedness as a Pre-Requisite for Strategic Thinking

It seems to me that strong mindedness is something of a pre-requisite for strategic thinking, and the personal values and determination are the result of ambition. Strategic thinkers must become comfortable with ambiguity and conceptualizing, something that often does not come easy.

In an earlier article, I identified Christopher Columbus as a strategic thinker. He had little formal schooling, and his ambition and insights were at the core of his success.  I could point to other successful historical people – Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford – as individuals who we could characterize were foremost strong minded and ambitious. I believe that these individual had to think strategically simply as an outlet for their ambitions.

Strategy and the Focus on Success

Curly’s advice to find the one thing is simply as way of emphasizing the importance of focus.

In the book Competitive Strategy, Michael Porter explains that focus has two meanings. One meaning is the organization’s power – its advantages – is focused on the right target. Again, Curley’s wisdom is simple: find the one thing. Here is where many organizations get into trouble: the say the “one thing” is profit, or cost containment, or growth.  These are all lagging indicators of performance: they are not the causes.

Thus, a strategist needs to appreciate Porter’s other meaning of focus. It has to with the way that economic power is created through coordination of actions (policies) that interact and overlap in ways that provide power over competitors. When we are talking about business strategy, we are really talking about the acumen of understanding how value is created, for which I will provide two examples:

  • Steve Jobs of Apple Computer relentlessly focused the organization on workable and elegant product designs. Apple did this better than its competitors, and its success has been legendary.
  • Sam Walton of Wal-Mart recognized opportunity in serving the rural retail market with everyday low-prices stores. Instead of copying the best practices of larger competitors like K-Mart, he focused his organization on supply chain policies and resources that redefined the concept of the store as a network

Organizational Strong Mindedness

Reiterating earlier points in this series of articles, good strategic thinkers are the source of insights that foster good strategies. To leverage the talents of individuals, organizations need to allow or encourage the sharing of insights and ideas.

In the organizational setting, strong mindedness is the ability to identify a focal point for success, and maintain attention to that focal point. Strategy is about focus and the application of leverage. The question for the strategist is, what is the “one thing” that is most important for my organization’s future success?

Shunryu Suzuki, a popularizer of Zen philosophy in the United States said, “The most important thing it to find out what is the most important thing.” How have you applied focus in your strategic thinking?

How Strategists Produce Strategic Insights

how strategist produce strategic insightsStrategic thinking produces inputs to be used in the strategic planning/management process. Put simply,

The purpose of strategic thinking is to produce insights

 Insight is,

A person’s realization of “the true nature of a thing” and/or its relationship to some contextual factor.

 Examples of Strategic Insights

The discovery and application of  insights is central to strategyThe process of thinking strategically is purposeful in that the strategist intends to create advantage in the future. A few examples of strategic business insights are:

  • A marketeer’s realization that a customer need is not being met adequately by existing products or functions
  • An employee’s realization that an impending piece of regulation or legislation will fundamentally alter the industry.
  • An auditor’s realization that a pattern of transactions show fraud
  • An engineer’s realization that they have created a novel invention

Strategic insights are those insights that are useful for developing organizational strategy.

Three Kinds of Insights Needed for Business Strategy

In the context of organizational strategy, the strategist is searching for three kinds of insight. They are:

  • Insights about the current situation. What are the problems and opportunities?  What are stakeholder aspirations and motivations?
  • Insights about the future. What will be different, and what is preferred? Since choice of customers tends to be one of the most strategic decisions, what customers might be best to serve?
  • Insights about how to bridge the gap between present and future. These insights involve problem solving: taking into account a full range of constraints: competitive response, political will, resources, and organization.

Insights are a Neurological Flash

Research into the functions of the brain reveal  the right hemisphere a region (more specifically in the right hippocampus) is the location responsible for  insights involving verbal information. As neuroscientists continue mapping the brain, we are sure to get a better understanding of those mechanisms responsible for the practice of thinking strategically.

How to Generate Insights: Balance Thinking Hard with Detachment

Individuals have their own style of doing things. Research has not shown one best practice for generating insights. Rather than give you a cookbook, let me encourage you to apply some energy to each of these five activities.  Be patient, and insights will emerge!

  • Preparation – identifying issues, collecting and categorizing information, assembling resources
  • Strategic Thinking DefinitionAnalysis – actively looking for relationships and patterns in data. Continually asking questions and reframing to find new perspectives. Searching for what is interesting. Validation and hypothesis testing.
  • Detachment – Getting away from the issues and allowing the subconscious to work on the issues.
  • Articulation – Explaining the crux of the situation to others. Trial and error solutions.
  • Refinement and iteration – Returning to earlier activities.

Strategic Insights Are Those That Are Relevant and Meaningful

Earlier in this article, I defined insight as  A person’s realization of “the true nature of a thing” and/or its relationship to some contextual factor.   I close out this article with exploring the final part of the definition, the “relationship to some contextual factor.”

When people hear the word “insight” they typically assume that it must be a brilliant new observation: an epiphany.  However, I find that kind of “aha” to be rare. Instead of brilliance, I keep it simple by testing it with this criteria of relevance and meaningfulness. Here’s a useful question:

Is the insight relevant and meaningful?

A relevant insight is one that is connected to current situation, future, and the bridge between the two (these were mentioned earlier in this article). Ideally, this creates some sense of alignment.

A meaningful insight is one that makes sense in a narrative. Here, I imagine myself in the future explaining how I created a successful strategy. If find that as I grapple with expressing the insight, I get a better sense of its worth and its motivational power.

Finally, a “contextual factor” is something that is external to the organization.  Examples include technological change, the economy, a social trend, etc. For example, Absolute Vodka had data that its products were purchased for drinking at home parties. But, why? It turns out that many people buy a particular brand of spirits because that they connect it to a personal anecdote; telling that anecdote to others is a way to be humorous or to relate an adventure. This insight gives the company a foundation for creating marketing and product development strategies.

Implications for Organizational Process

Because organizations do not share a single brain, strategic thinking can only be a capability of individuals. This has important implications for the process of strategy. Most importantly, a good strategy development processes should allow time for individual research, analysis, and reflection. Individuals acquire insights through conscious analysis mixed with unconscious (intuitive) cognition.

It is has been said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Doesn’t it make sense that the perspiration is the act of thinking strategically to produce the insights?

Could Strategy Be As Simple As This?

Strategic thinking is purposeful, and one purpose is to spark strategic insights. These insights make it easier to make decisions.

This article’s proposition is that strategy involves three choices by the strategist: choice of scope, choice of objective,  and choice of advantage. These choices do not constitute strategy, but answering them puts you on the course to actually having a strategy and not just a list of goals and initiatives.

What is the scope of our venture?

Scope is a term used to mean what is “in” and “out” of consideration. In other words, what is the definition of the venture? It could refer to the firm, the program, the team, or the individual.

The following sub-questions can help the strategist in partitioning and defining the scope of strategy:

  • Are we thinking big, or small?
  • Where is our geographic domain? Local, regional, expatriate, or global?
  • When we think about the venture as a “solution provider,” to what extent do we want to produce the solution, sell the solution, and service the solution? Stated differently, what part of the value chain do we want to operate in? Are there unexploited or under-exploited opportunities to capture value?
  • Is there anything that the venture explicitly won’t do?

What objective(s) do we choose to pursue?

The strategist first considers the circumstances – diagnosis – and selects an objective that best fits her diagnosis of the situation. Next, they choose an objective that is most sensible for the stakeholders.

The following sub-questions can help the strategist in identifying strategic objectives:

  • How do we think about success?
  • If we commit to a stretch goal, can we acquire the resources that will get us to the goal?

Critical thinking is a component of strategic thinking. Activate the logic to see if the objective is sensible.

For example, I once worked for a CEO said, “We grew revenues 35% last year, so our goal for next year is 35%.” That probably qualifies as a BHAG: a Big Hairy Audacious Goal.  BHAGs can be be useful if they are based on a logic and commitment to apply resources. They can be discouraging if there is no underlying design.

Who or what are we trying to gain advantage over?

Most people have heard this joke.

Strategic thinkers outrun the bearTwo campers come upon an angry bear. The first says, “I’m glad I wore my running shoes.” The second says, “you can’t outrun the bear.” The first says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.”

Sometimes it is only a small advantage that allows our success. But nevertheless, it is an advantage. Strategy is about leveraging a small advantage – and combining it with other advantages – so as to gain a more significant advantage.

Here are three sub-questions that help to identify the areas where the strategist can find advantage:

  • Who are the competitors and where is their focus and power?
  • What alternatives are available (including the “do nothing” alternative)?
  • Is the identified advantage actually important to the customer (or other important stakeholders)?

As it pursues its objectives, the venture needs to provide something of value to its stakeholders. There are always competitive alternatives and substitutes available to these stakeholders; for customers, its other product/service offerings; for                            not-for-profits, it is a competition for attention for funding or policy.

Conclusion

These three decisions do not comprise a complete definition of strategy, but they do provide a useful framing perspective. Insights are often simple ideas that tell us about the essence of something.

As you consider your answers, consider how you would blend them together into a problem-solving or opportunity-capturing design.

Do you agree that this is a simple way to think about strategy? How can a strategist apply the questions?