What can Project Managers Learn from Chess?

by | Jul 13, 2016

It’s been a long time since I’ve played chess. I used to play a bit in the school team but these days I spend too much time thinking and like to enjoy more physical forms of relaxation that get me out of my head like yoga or going to the gym.

Recently though, there were some chess sets put out on the street in front of my hotel in La Paz, Bolivia and I couldn’t resist the temptation so had a couple of games with the two gentlemen in this photo. It took me a while to turn my chess brain back on but the most important shift is to remember that you need to be thinking beyond what’s just in front of you.

Second order effects

In chess, as in many things in life, it pays to think beyond first order effects. There’s no point taking somebody’s knight if they can then checkmate you in their next move. This can even be a tactical play sometimes, with our opponent making a deliberate sacrifice to tempt us into a mistake.

In Ray Dalio’s Principles manifesto, he talks about the importance of looking beyond first-order consequences.

“People who overweigh the first-order consequences of their decisions and ignore the effects that the second- and subsequent-order consequences will have on their goals rarely reach their goals. This is because first-order consequences often have opposite desirabilities from second-order consequences, resulting in big mistakes in decision-making.

For example, the first-order consequences of exercise (pain and time-sink) are commonly considered undesirable, while the second-order consequences (better health and more attractive appearance) are desirable … “

So, not only do we need to look at what’s going on around us but also the consequences of what’s going on around us.

Thinking in Shapes and Patterns

A question on Quora asks:

“How many moves do professional players & Grand Masters think ahead?”

The top answer seems relatively sensible and suggests:

“It depends – if the position is relatively static, players tend to spend more time forming abstract plans than calculating concrete variations, while in a tactical game (such as a sacrificial attack) with many forced moves, they can think up to 10-15 moves ahead.”

10-15 moves ahead, wow, that’s some serious brain power. However, the second answer offers a better insight into how grand masters think:

When you learn about chess, you realize that it’s not the number of moves. Nobody counts. It’s shapes and patterns.

So What About IT Projects?

In chess you have everything laid out in front of you, but then you have to work inside your head. With Hubscope, you can play out the potential moves and see how everything is connected on paper before the vision becomes reality. Avoid that moment where you make the move and think “Nooooooo” whilst internally praying your mistake won’t get found out … You can easily rewind, and replay moves if you didn’t like the consequences before you’ve played them out in reality.

Second, you need to look for patterns and anti-patterns. This could be something like:

  • seeing the critical path between two important nodes; or
  • understanding which nodes seem to have the most dependencies and so are the most critical; or
  • noticing that there are some nodes that don’t seem to be connected to anything and so need some more thinking about.

It’s just too much for us to think through the extensive network of dependencies and interdependencies on a typical project. Visualise it and get used to thinking in shapes and patterns.

And in case you’re wondering, I beat the guy on the right but got taught a lesson by the guy on the left …

And if you liked this post, please share it with your pals using the buttons on the left …

Think like Jason Bourne on your next project
15 scenarios when you might need Hubscope