The Charles Gambit

We all have our favorite gambits – the tried and true tactics we’ve previously executed with varying but mostly positive outcomes. From experience we expect certain “gives,” risks or costs that result in ample opportunity for “takes” that we’re confident will work out to our advantage.

A popular gambit in chess is the “Queen’s Gambit,” an opening tactic, and, yes, also the name of a popular Netflix miniseries that I mention only because you might want to binge watch on a still too-cold (if you’re up north) or too-hot (if you’re down south) weekend.

The queen is the most powerful piece on the chessboard when allowed to move freely. Constrained on the edge, not as much. In a corner, even less.

While the “Queen’s Gambit” sacrifices a pawn, control of the board’s center allows more mobility of pieces, easy access to other parts of the board, and determines how much influence you have on the game.

Assuming the center is where you want to be in chess and in business (because this is what we’re really talking about), is this the right move at the right time? What are some alternatives?

Move like a knight

The queen can move like a bishop, rook, king, pawn, but not a knight. The knight is unique. The knight can be tricky. It moves “L shaped,” two in one direction, one more at a right angle. The knight does things differently. If landing or taking off it can’t be blocked. It can jump, leap other pieces, and create “deadly forks” between two or more pieces.

What would it mean to do things like a knight, change the perspective, create new openings, shake up the game with new partnerships and benefits and radically change the entire marketplace surrounding your industry?

How would you assess the potential?

Perhaps use the techniques of chess grandmasters:

• Chunking: consolidating information into groups of positions and formulating possibilities.
• Pattern recognition: recognizing similarities to find the most promising continuation.
Using the “Stepping-Stone Method:” taking a position, freezing it in your mind, and calculating the next position.
• Retro-grade analysis: looking backward – from the simple (ending) to the complex (beginning) – and determining which moves resulted in the endgame.

And how would you pivot and potentially choose a new strategy?

I read some well-articulated advice in “The ‘Art of the Pivot’: 9 Tips to Successfully Shift Your Business Strategy” in

“Shifting gears and finding another strategy to achieve your business goals are what James Reinhart, CEO of an online retail startup, calls ‘the art of the pivot.’”

Chess players are known for unconventional thinking, exceptional problem solving, and even a little paranoia, which, as a formerly decent level chess player, made me chuckle a bit when I read the following:

“To build a lasting business that delivers value to customers, you must have equal parts confidence and paranoia,” he said. “Most good ideas aren’t obvious, so be confident, and push the boundaries of the experience you’re delivering. But businesses have to be willing to constantly disrupt themselves to remain relevant. Be paranoid, and don’t tune out the world around you.”

And then he offered these 9 tips (edited for brevity):
1. Understand your business’s strengths and weaknesses: List the things your company does well, does poorly and the things that keep you up at night. Without this level of awareness and introspection, you won’t get the chance to evolve.
2. Spark an internal dialogue: Innovation can come from any level. Encourage everyone in your company to look for external threats and opportunities by starting an internal and ongoing dialogue.
3. Identify important threats and opportunities: Spend time in the depths of your user data, examine your conversion funnel, talk to customers in person, and track and analyze every move of your competitors. Try not to get distracted by the small stuff and figure out which threats or opportunities are actually worth action.
4. Evaluate pivot options: Once you’ve pinpointed a significant threat or opportunity that warrants a pivot, it’s time to start thinking about strategies. There’s likely more than one strategy, so list your options, and think through each scenario.
5. Map out implications: Across process, profits, costs, brand, team structure, culture and more. Talk to each department head personally and find out what he or she may want to know before putting your final vision into motion.
6. Sell the pivot to your team: Get the full support of your team and investors. Explain the “whys” and not just the “whats.”
7. Sell it to your customers: Telling a supportive community that you’re planning to drastically change something they love is hard. Be sensitive but remember that you’re building for the next million customers, and you simply can’t please everyone.
8. Have a plan and execute it: Have an extensive plan in place with tasks, stakeholders, deadlines, clear customer communication, and short- and long-term goals. Ensure that everyone is aware of how the pivot impacts them and their role in the transition.
9. Stay agile: Evaluate threats and opportunities. Be willing to constantly threaten and disrupt from within. Stay aware and agile, and you’ll have no trouble redirecting again when the time comes.

During a chess match there are any number of alternatives and ready opponents demonstrating their assertiveness and prowess, but over the course of a match, things get simpler until a final resolution becomes obvious. Just as in business.

Which makes patience and agility the ultimate “Charles Gambit.”

Charles Sutherland, chief strategy officer, defi SOLUTIONS, has more than 25 years in technology management and strategy with companies such as Sagent Lending Technologies, Fiserv, and Accenture. At defi, Charles leads strategy, product management, and marketing with a focus on improving the experience of lenders and consumers.