Sunday, December 01, 2013

Agility is both about individuals and collaboration: Analogy between agile teams and chess

What can we learn from chess to better our agile management? Here I use analogies from the game  to highlight a few important concept that all agile team members should be aware of. For example, the game of chess highlights the difference between the strength of individuals versus the strength of teams, as well as the difference between experience versus talent. 

I watched a few of the 2013 world chess championship games between Carlsen and Anand. (I am not a chess player, I am just happy to be a good spectator). It was a great fight! Looking back you might say that Anand just made too many mistakes, yet during the match I think that many of us though that Anand had good chance to do much better.

While watching those games, I could not help seeing some of the universal principals that can also be found in management. To explain the analogy, I first present the chess concepts, and then map these into a management world.

When you learn chess, you learn that pawns are the weakest pieces, queens, the strongest, bishops and knights have a similar strength, and that rooks are the second most powerful pieces. Therefore it is "normal" to make moves which exchange same value pieces. And as a beginner, you base your moves on this principal and start by thinking that the strength of a position is determined by summing the strength of your remaining pieces. Yet with experience, comes the realization that only pieces that can do something have value. And of course, it should not be easy to take them. Which really means that good players build their positions as complex supporting dependencies between their pieces, and complex attack/defense relations between their pieces and the adversaries pieces.  And relations are built not only for the existing position but also for selected possible future positions. Still, even though positional strength is usually more important than "piece value" strength, strong positional strength often ebbs away when it does not provide victory, and fortunes shift. In these moments, an extra piece or two may make the difference between winning and losing.

One way to make sure to build "the right" position in chess is to rely on learning many chess openings. With a chess opening "catalog" you are more sure "to do the right" thing. The same can be said for end games: there are techniques to learn to deal with many type of end scenarios. Note that to use such methods you do not need to be talented, you need only to have learned the skill (see recent talent blog entry for more). Therefore to mention that (in theory) you do not need to "think" to build a solid starting position in chess, you just follow the previously learned opening lines. Still, this only works if your adversary is doing the same. And, you do need to think, because there are often multiple choices possible for a given opening position. Also, opening lines in chess are not necessarily very deep. (I couldn't find how deep openings are on average, only total number of opening moves, e.g. 16.3 million ).

Let us now try to associate team management ideas to the chess concepts introduce above.
Chess Agile management
1 Piece value strength Team member strength
2 Positional strength is built on relation between pieces Agile team strength is built on relations and collaborations between people
3 Game position Each team member has a task activity, and relations and collaborations with other  team members
4 Piece is moved Team member finishes a task, picks up a new one, and possibly changes how he interacts with others.
5 Chess openings build strong positions Use of past experience builds strong and productive task assignments and collaborations within the teams.
6 Chess endgame theory helps win in difficult situations Use of past experience allows team to meet their delivery deadline.
7 Chess player thinks Team interacts and prepares tasks.

We should not push this analogy too far. A game of chess is not a team.  And in fact in chess, each player controls his individual pieces, which could be compared to a project manager ordering his people around. There are many industries where this comparison would make sense. The reasoning works like this:
  1. If you have acquired enough expertise so that each task is repeatable and demands little new learning.
  2. If what you need to do is known and fits within your expertise.
  3. If you find individuals that can perform the tasks needed.
  4. Then you can run a central project management, and as "everything" is known, no collaboration or individual decision taking is needed.
But, such a situation is explicitly disallowing all the new situations and new learning that appear in playing chess.  Which is why I have chosen only to focus on an agile view of the world here. In fact my only "starting" goal was to repeat the "mantra" that agility is both based on individuals and collaboration. And so is the game of chess (from a perspective of the pieces).

To conclude:
  • If you are a less skilled individual, you can provide critical strength to your team by supporting your teammates with valuable and well timed help.
  • If you are a very skilled individual, then you can make you team even stronger by leveraging your strength through appropriate interactions with your teammates. 
  • Use past experience to choose best how to assign tasks, to interact and support your teammates, and meet your deadlines.
And if you have any doubt that this is true, you should watch more chess.

All original content copyright James Litsios, 2013.