Winning at Product Strategy: 5 Lessons from the Best Chess Players
Chess is known as the game of strategy. The goal of the game is to checkmate the opponent's king. The starting point to play chess is learning the rules. Once you know the rules, you can already start playing. However, learning the rules only is not enough to start winning.
To increase the chance to win the chess game, you need to develop a strategy. This is a higher level plan of how to win the opponent. That doesn't include all concrete moves you will make, but it's a high-level idea on how to win. For example, how would you attack, the principles to follow, such as controlling the centre of the board, developing pieces quickly, or keeping the king safety.
But what does chess have to do with successful product companies, you might ask? In business, just like in chess, having a strong product strategy is one of the critical components for success. All great products have great product strategy.
So if you want to level-up your skills as a product leader and develop a winning product strategy, there are some valuable lessons you can learn from the best chess players that you can apply in business context.
1. Focus towards a clearly defined objective
In every chess game, the end goal is clear, that is to checkmate the opponent's king. This is the key focus of every chess player. Best chess players are thinking several moves ahead, anticipating their opponent's responses, and planning their own moves accordingly. Their focus is achieving this end goal. Without a clear objective, chess players would be playing aimlessly, making moves without any purpose, or moves that make short-term wins only.
Similarly, the most successful product companies have a strong sense of focus. As a product leader, you should aim to have well-defined objectives and to communicate them clearly throughout the organisation. Product teams should have clarity in the company's high-level goals and should be able to translate these goals to objectives relevant for their team. When an objective is clear, a product team has clarity in how to prioritise the product features. They can identify features that are not aligned with the company's objectives, and they are aware that implementing those will be wasting valuable time and resources that could be used more effectively.
2. Knowing the opponent
Best chess players are able to anticipate their opponent's moves. The more they know the opponent's thought process, the better they can predict their moves and plan several steps ahead.
In business, there are no opponents, but rather customers and competitors. In order to win in the market, it is crucial to have a deep understanding of both. Understanding your customers' needs, preferences and behaviour patterns allows you to develop a product valuable for the customer. And understanding your competitors' strengths and weaknesses is essential to finding your competitive advantage and positioning your product for victory.
Even best chess players cannot predict all moves upfront. As the game evolves, they must be agile and adjust their strategy. This does not mean changing the end goal, but the way to get to the end goal. Being agile helps chess players quickly respond to the new circumstances, take advantage of an unexpected opportunity or counter unexpected threat.
Similarly, the best product companies are agile and responsive to changes in the market or to customer needs. This is why continuous learning is necessary, including continuous market and competitor research as well as continuous customer discovery or validation. Market conditions can change fast, new trends or technologies can occur, competitors might pivot or change their strategies. Observing these changes is necessary to enable product teams adapt quickly to the new circumstances.
The past few years have been a great example of how agility is a necessary skill to survive. With the COVID-19 pandemic, companies that previously relied on in-person sales had to quickly shift to a digital sales model. This required them to adapt their product offerings to meet the needs of customers who were now primarily shopping online. And now with the rising inflation, companies need to again show their agility - by adjusting pricing strategies, assessing product offerings, and prioritising those that are in demand, while phasing out those that are less profitable.
While being agile can be challenging, especially in the face of unexpected disruptions, it is essential for success in both chess and business.
4. Risk evaluation
Calculated risk-taking is an integral part of both chess and business. Taking risk can lead to great rewards, but it can also lead to failure. That's why every risk you take needs to be calculated.
Chess players often face situations where taking a risky move could lead to victory, but could also result in loosing the game. The better a player is at evaluating risk, the greater their chance of success. They must carefully analyse the board, their position and the potential moves of their opponent before deciding whether to take a risky move or play it safe.
Similarly, as a product leader, you might be in a situation when you need to make a strategic decision that could potentially lead to success or failure. Correctly evaluating the risk is essential. This requires a careful analysis of the potential outcomes, weighing the pros and cons. And such analysis need to be supported by data about the market, customers and competition. Objectively analysing this data is key to making informed decisions.
5. Continuous improvement
If you are new to chess, you probably admire the strategic thinking abilities of top chess players. But the good news is that this strategic thinking can be learned and developed through consistent training and practice.
In chess, players often train with coaches and collaborate with other players to learn from their mistakes and strategies. They analyse game data and observe patterns to improve their tactics and develop strategies. With each new game, they are able to develop a better strategy.
Same applies to product companies. A successful product strategy is not a one-time activity; it's a continuous process of analysis and improvement. Product leaders need to regularly revise their strategy to account for changes of external factors such as the market, competition, and customer behaviour. However, it's equally important to recognise that internal factors also change over time. As a product leader you gain more experience, you gain more insight in the strengths and weaknesses of your team, and you can improve your strategic thinking skills over time.
A business is not the same as chess game, but the strategic thinking used by chess players can provide valuable learnings for product leaders. To be successful in the long-term game of business, it's essential to maintain a strong focus, know your competition well, stay agile, evaluate risks realistically, and continuously improve.
Consider each of these areas for your own company. How can you apply these lessons to improve your product strategy and increase your chances of success in the marketplace? Remember, just like in chess, the ability to think strategically can be the difference between winning and losing in business.