Why success in Corona times is 99% tactics
How rapid, tactical experiments help to manage uncertainty
I was working in my home office earlier this week when my concentration was disturbed by a distant argument. After listening for a moment, I realised my two teenage sons were quarrelling, in a good natured way, about who was the better chess player. During lockdown the three of us have played a lot of chess. In mid-March, I was probably the strongest player, but times have changed. The boys – aged 16 and 18 – were arguing which of them were currently on top. Their evidence? How many times each of them had recently beaten me. I was no longer even being considered for the top spot. My only relevance was as a unit of measurement. Covid-19 has re-arranged the pecking order in competitive arenas large and small.
For centuries, Chess was viewed as the ultimate game of long-sighted strategy. Then, in 1908, the German Grand Master Richard Teichmann caused consternation when he proclaimed: “Chess is 99% tactics.” Some agreed with him. Most scoffed at the simplicity of his thinking. It took a tactical machine to fully vindicate his argument.
In 1997, the then world chess champion Garry Kasparov was unexpectedly beaten by an IBM computer. ‘Deep Blue’ was an artificial intelligence that used ‘brute force’ computing to think through potential moves. It overcame Kasparov’s wily strategies through the ability to calculate the likely tactical benefits of any move at lightning speed. It was capable of examining 200 million moves per second in the three minutes allocated for a single turn. Reflecting on his unique position as the fallen standard bear for the human race, Kasparov wryly noted: “Deep Blue was intelligent the way your programmable alarm clock is intelligent. Not that losing to a $10 million alarm clock made me feel any better.”
What works right now?
Deep Blue and Teichman’s ‘in-the-moment’ approach helps in managing Covid-19 threat. Right now, relying on long-term strategy is patently ludicrous. We’re living in a world where it’s not even possible to plan a foreign holiday without significant risk, let alone a long-term business strategy. What’s far more important is what works right now.
Tactics are often thought of as the short-term steps to achieve a long-term strategy. Being tactical is like a day trip; strategy is an extended journey into the future. The 6th century general and philosopher Sun Tzu, wrote: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Tzu was arguing we need both tactics and strategy to win a battle. But their relative importance is always context-specific. Amid the massive uncertainty we face in 2020, it’s a good idea to pivot decisively towards tactical thinking, at least for a while.
Experiments = Action-based tactics
One useful tactical approach is to experiment. In traditional business planning you choose what you calculate to be the best product, investment or new policy. If you’re correct, this is a perfect approach. It’s both fast, effective, and has huge and immediate payback for your remarkable prescience. If you’re wrong, it’s enormously costly. By contrast, experiments are the ultimate structured, action-based tactic. The objective is to verify your assumptions about an assumed idea or fact to make a ‘go! or ‘no-go!’ decision. The art is to burn up the smallest possible amount of time, money and effort to learn the most about what works – and what doesn’t. In doing so, you demonstrate a willingness to acknowledge your ignorance of what the future holds.
Experiments redefine failure. You haven’t avoided it, nor have you made it attractive. You’ve simply made it survivable. Buckminster Fuller, the innovative architect who invented the geodesic dome, neatly summed it up: “There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.”
The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping advised when the currents of uncertainty swirl around you, ‘cross the river by feeling the stones under your feet’. Later, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author Eric Ries neatly summed it up in his book The Lean Start-Up when he defined experiments as a tool for ‘validated learning’. Both acknowledge, experiments allow you to stay grounded and grope your way forward bit by bit. To know just enough to take the next step. In a Covid-19 world, where forecasting has become useless, tactical experimentation is a winning move.
This blog is adapted from my latest book The Human Edge: How curiosity and creativity are your superpowers in the digital economy (Pearson) which won the Business Book of The Year 2020.
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