Chess Not Checkers

Last week we introduced our tool that measures the disruption capability of your organization – Welcome To InnoAudit

A key tenet of this audit is the ability of an organization or team to disrupt itself via moving up the disruption learning curve.

Chess is the quintessential strategic game. Instead of having one type of playing piece on the board that represents you, there are many—there’s a whole team. Unlike in checkers, in which many pieces on the board all do the same thing, chess pieces are defined by specific roles. They are designed to move differently and yet work together. A good chess player both understands the individual moves of different pieces and knows how to deploy them in complementary ways.

As leaders, we see the whole board and understand the roles of different individuals. The team objective is achieved when we optimally coordinate these people’s roles, always visualizing several moves ahead.

Of course, there are a few flaws with this analogy. The people we employ are not inanimate objects but rather free agents—free to leave our board and go play for someone else. Nor do they have a limited set of prescribed moves. The roles they fill, may initially provide an opportunity for them to contribute but, may ultimately become limiting.

Within an S-Curve is potential, but eventually that potential is exhausted. As managers, we want to recognize when someone who has been functioning in one role is ready to try something new. Consider the pawn that makes its way across the board and is rewarded by becoming a queen. It’s a powerful augmentation of the pawn’s abilities—and of the chess player’s options.

Jim Skinner, former CEO of McDonald’s, is a good example of such a “pawn.” Skinner completely lacked the standard CEO credentials. He didn’t have an MBA—he never even graduated from college. His first job was flipping burgers. But over four decades, he was able to assume a variety of roles that eventually led to the C-suite. When his predecessor stepped down due to health problems, he got the top job. McDonald’s did well during his tenure, but Skinner’s most enduring contribution may be his emphasis on talent development. Perhaps because he didn’t have college credentials himself, the training and development of his employees was something Skinner took very seriously. He created a leadership institute a year after he became CEO and required that all executives train at least two potential successors—one who could do the job today, the “ready now,” in McDonald’s parlance, and one who could be a future replacement, the “ready future.”

Limiting people to certain roles or positions holds no benefits for your business. Be the chess master that provides vision and coordination while allowing pieces to move themselves. Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford, began his career at Boeing. A strong performer, he had been promoted from individual contributor to manager. After a few months, one of Mulally’s direct reports, a talented engineer, announced he was quitting. When Mulally asked why, the engineer said, “You micromanage. You’ve made fourteen changes to my work. Your job is not to do my job. Your job is to help me understand the bigger picture. Plug me into the network. Advocate for me.” The employee still quit. Mulally, who went on to be one the best CEOs of our time, apparently learned his lesson.

Eager, capable employees tackling new challenges are a key driver of disruption within an organization. Author Alex Haley once said, “When an old person dies it’s like a library burning.” When employees leave a firm, books burn: we lose a wealth of vital institutional knowledge and expertise.

Let’s not be the disruption book burners in our organizations.

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