The first few years of my career were relatively straightforward. I came to work every day, grabbed my new user stories or defects and started working. Most of what I developed was in a vacuum and I rarely had to worry about my code changes affecting anyone else's part of the system. Mostly, I was playing Checkers - a fast paced, reactionary game where the object is speed and there's not much strategy involved.
However, as time progressed and I gained more responsibilities in my day-to-day work, I learned (the hard way in most cases) that almost everything I did somehow affected someone else. Even more importantly, I learned that my decisions had direct and lasting impacts on the rest of my team. I could no longer handle my work life day-to-day like before. My straightforward game of Checkers switched to a more complex game of Chess without me even knowing it.
This is a common problem people at all levels of leadership face. The key is to recognize when the game has changed and adjust your strategy accordingly. How, You ask? In Chess Not Checkers: Elevate Your Leadership Game Mark Miller outlines four key strategies, loosely based on Chess, to help you re-frame your thinking as a leader.
- Bet on Leadership - Growing leaders grow organizations. Investing in leadership is the single most important thing your organization should be doing, whether you're a dev team of 3 or a Fortune 100 company. The leadership "bench" you establish will help instill the culture and cadence the rest of the organization follows. If you get this wrong, you'll find yourself wondering why it's so difficult to get things done, and live in constant disappointment that everything takes much longer to complete than expected.
- Act as One - Alignment multiplies impact. In Chess, one bishop is worth 3 points, but two bishops together are worth 7. Having a clear vision and direction for an organization will ensure everyone is marching towards the same goal. Organizational structure will act as a multiplier (division of labor) instead of a drag (communication complexity). It's always better to focus chunks of your resources on a few, high value, goals instead of spreading them too thin and trying to do everything at random.
- Win the Heart - Engagement energizes effort. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each member of your team and pointing them towards the right objectives will help foster motivation. Thought workers are not interchangeable cogs in a machine and the more individualism you give your team members, the harder they will work. They'll also be happier and more creative.
- Excel at Execution - Greatness hinges on execution. Putting systems in place to actually deliver value is vital. The best plans, tactics, strategies, and visions in the world mean nothing if the actual work doesn't get done. Setting goals, measuring results, and striving to constantly improve are the cornerstones of executing well. Get this wrong, and the rest of the gains listed above fall apart.
I really enjoyed Chess Not Checkers. It's told in a fictional story narrative and contains some great nuggets of wisdom that any leader at any level could benefit from. Best of all, it makes you aware of the deadly process of playing Checkers (which we're all guilty of) when you should be playing Chess. Failure to recognize and address this shift in your professional life could have drastic consequences.