Five Habits We Can Learn from Chess that Apply to Crisis Leadership

Chess was the breakout game of 2020, as teens and young adults stuck at home flocked to live games by chess experts on Twitch. Between top players on social media and the popularity of the Netflix chess-centric series The Queen’s Gambit, more people are not only watching but learning to play, with millions of people joining and other online portals. Chess offers more than a fresh activity during a crisis – it also offers us some tools we can apply when we need to steer through a difficult situation.

Learning Leadership Habits From Chess

While coping with a crisis isn’t a game, there are some leadership habits that chess can help us develop and use in other situations. Here are five that were especially relevant over the past year.

1. Learn as much as you can about what you’re facing

Disruption can come in many forms, from technological breakthroughs that alter markets to natural disasters that force changes in peoples’ behavior. Every disruption presents a challenge for decision makers who have to figure out how to succeed in a changed environment.

One habit that separates average chess players from consistently good ones is studying the possibilities. They research established tactics, study their opponent’s preferred strategies, and review their own games to see what worked and what didn’t. As they play, they think about what will happen next and what each move—theirs and their opponent’s—could mean for their progress.

During 2020, retailers had to learn a lot very quickly in order to survive shutdowns and social distancing requirements that limited in-store shopping. Those who studied and adopted best practices for curbside pickup and ecommerce succeeded in making a difficult transition quickly, while others struggled to make the switch easy for their customers and workers.

2. Create a workable plan with the time you have

In an ideal world, chess players would have time to consider every option and consequence before making a move. However, in chess and in business, there are limits to how much time we can spend planning before we’re required to act. Because of time constraints and because conditions on the board evolve throughout the game, most chess experts recommend that players plan a few moves ahead but not all the way to the endgame.

This approach supports the path that successful merchants took in 2020. There were changes they needed to make quickly, like adjusting return rules to accommodate more online purchases and fewer opportunities to make in-store returns and exchanges. It can be tempting to delay action in order to find solutions that will endure over the long term, to justify the expense of implementing changes. But sometimes solving the immediate problem in a few moves is what allows businesses to move forward in difficult circumstances.

3. Think about how your moves could go wrong

Chess isn’t only about knowing how different tactics and gambits work. It’s also about knowing how they can fail. Years ago, cognitive scientists studied chess players to find out how the winners win. One of the key findings was that instead of just thinking about how they could succeed, winning players were more likely to think about how their tactics could fail—and how their opponents could best them.

In ecommerce, identifying problems typically takes the form of user testing. Will the app work properly on all customers’ phones? Will the in-stock quantity counts be correct in real time, so customers aren’t disappointed? Will your store’s personalization make customers feel recognized and more likely to buy or miss the mark and make them feel alienated?

These CX issues are important whether there’s a disruption underway or not, because customer experience is now the leading competitive differentiator among brands according to many industry analysts. But CX may be even more important during a crisis, when customers rely on retailers to help them get what they need. Consider that even though many retailers made huge advances in online commerce in 2020 to meet customers’ needs, dissatisfaction with internet retailers’ website performance, inventory and customer support led to a nearly 5% drop in retail customer satisfaction between April and October.

The lesson here: Identifying and preventing problems is key, no matter how fast you need to move.

4. Use all the resources on your team

Each piece on the chess board has unique ways of moving and its own limitations. Taken together, the pieces complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, bishops move diagonally while rooks move laterally, so they can be used for different tactics. Likewise, the people on your team each bring their own skills and experience to whatever disruption you’re facing, and effective leaders tap into those different but (hopefully) complementary strengths to tackle the problem.

For ecommerce merchants that might mean adding messaging in new social channels to reach more customers with updates – channels that your most junior employees might understand better than anyone else on your team.

5. Leverage your network to share ideas and keep learning

Those of us who don’t play chess may think the game is strictly a one-on-one event between two players, but enthusiasts know that good players emerge from robust communities. Whether players are congregating on Twitch and, attending meetings and tournaments with their school chess club, or playing speed chess in a neighborhood park, they find ways to share ideas, learn from one another and inspire each other to succeed.

In ecommerce, leveraging your network can mean attending webinars on new developments in your industry, consulting with your best customers to find out what they need now, or working with strategic partners to develop end-to-end solutions to new challenges as they arise.

Coping with massive changes is serious business, of course, for businesses and their customers, employees and partners. The more tools and habits we have to meet major challenges, the better prepared we are to handle them. Chess is one way we can strengthen our habits of planning, leveraging resources and building networks so we can deal with whatever comes next.

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