The centuries-old game of chess is having a big cultural moment, with chess experts playing on social media and a popular television drama reimagining the world of elite chess of the mid-20th century. As a result, fans are taking a fresh look at how the lessons of chess can apply to other areas of life, including business.
Chess requires strategic planning, an understanding of each piece’s strengths and a vision for how to make those pieces work together.
Whether you’re a chess player or not, the game offers examples of how and why to develop your people, build strong teams and nurture diversity in your organization.
Here are five principles that chess and human resources (HR) strategy have in common:
1. Start with your goal in mind.
In chess, the most successful players imagine the winning scenario they want and work backward from there to plan their early moves.
On the chessboard, this kind of planning involves prepositioning pieces to enact specific strategies. In your organization, it can involve:
- Identifying skill and diversity gaps
- Bringing on the right people to fill out your team
- Helping employees as they work toward your goals
This approach may seem obvious to you. But just as inexperienced chess players get stuck reacting to their opponent’s moves instead of planning a proactive strategy, businesses without a proactive approach to HR can find themselves without all the people they need to reach the goals they’ve set.
When you’re stuck dealing with crises, there is no room for initiative. The chess and HR strategy is to:
- Have a detailed plan for progress toward your goal.
- Recognize opportunities and solve problems as they arise.
- Find the right people to help you.
2. Plan with your competitors’ goals in mind, too.
In chess, it’s very clear that your strategy must consider what your opponent is planning. In business, you can use this mindset to ensure that you understand your competitive differentiators clearly in each scenario.
It’s wise to approach each new prospect, partnership or recruiting effort with the assumption that there’s also someone else who wants to work with them. Then you can plan to win that engagement by analyzing your strengths and gaps compared to your competitors to find a way to make the most compelling offer.
For example, if your organization is competing for data analyst talent and you know you can’t match a competitor’s base salary offer, can you offer more flexible scheduling, a better PTO package or clearer opportunities for career advancement?
3. Leverage each person’s strengths.
Chess can illustrate how important it is to identify and build on each person’s skills and abilities in an organization, regardless of their role.
Consider the chess pawn. These are the most common pieces – each player starts with eight – and they can only move forward, one space at a time unless they are capturing a piece in attack. On their own, they’re vulnerable pieces, but a pawn that advances all the way to the other side of the board can be promoted into any major piece, earning more power and leverage in the game.
Getting across the board is a challenge, though, because pawns are weak pieces on their own. To move forward, they need to be linked together for strength and support.
With that approach, a group of pawns can sometimes outcompete high-level pieces. That can happen when there are no obstacles on the board to stop their potential and their forward momentum can’t be stopped.
The same can be true for employees. They can grow into more influential and versatile roles, but only if they have the proper support along the way, including managers who seek and remove obstacles to their development.
4. Each team needs people with a variety of skills and abilities.
The need for diversity is built into chess because of the way each piece has different strengths and abilities. No single piece aside from the queen can dominate the board. Working together with a well-planned strategy, though, the other pieces can do powerful things.
What’s more, without diverse capabilities, a player may not be able to succeed. For example, each player starts the game with two bishops, each moving diagonally but only on squares of its own color. If one bishop is captured, the player’s ability to cover the board diagonally is reduced by half. If both are captured, an entire mode of attack is out of reach.
Likewise, diverse groups of employees can accomplish more than teams of people who all have the same skills and experiences. For example, a small startup full of dedicated and accomplished software developers may have trouble selling their solution without team members who understand what their target customers need and can communicate the software’s value to them.
5. Different team members may shine at different times.
In chess, certain pieces become more prominent at different phases of the game. For example, rooks are pieces that can move multiple spaces side to side or down the board – as long as there’s nothing in their way.
Early on, your other pieces and your opponent’s usually block rooks’ movements, so they’re not very influential. They may even seem like they’re impeding your progress because they can’t do very much.
But in the last third or so of a game, as other pieces are removed from the board, rooks’ avenues of movement open up. Then their capabilities become extremely important and powerful, so much that players with have two rooks still on the board near the end of their game are well-positioned to win.
The chess and HR strategy is that diversity not only helps your team attack problems from different angles at the same time, but it can also allow different team members’ strengths to emerge at different stages in the process.
For example, a quiet employee who’s calm, empathetic and good at listening may not deliver the most engaging pitch to a prospective client – but their skills are exactly what you might need to work well with that client later on a difficult or high-stakes project.
Summing it all up
Approaching your HR issues like you’re planning to win at chess can help you create a plan to reach your goals, empower your people to work toward those goals, and allow all members of your team to contribute to your overall success.
Want more strategies – like the chess and HR strategies discussed above – for hiring, retaining and developing talent? Download our e-book: How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.