October 1, 2010

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

My wife and I like to play chess. Chess is like fighting, but with rules, so it is ideal for married couples. Chess strategy can be either offensive or defensive in nature. My wife and I both pursue a “scorched earth” policy, creating bloody carnage and leaving a trail of bodies wherever we move on the board.

Before I go further, I should acknowledge that many of my readers don't play chess. You might prefer that I use golf or football analogies. There is a time and a place for everything, and this month, chess is where it's at.

The playing field

As you might expect from aficionados of the game, we have a number of chess sets in our home. The most unique set uses a board that is tiled onto our basement floor. Each square measures 12 × 12 inches, making the size of the entire board 64 sq. ft. As for the chess pieces, the king is 25 inches tall. As my wife is only 63 inches tall, these are pretty big pieces!

An unusual set, to be sure, but unusual seems to be popular right now. I've seen a catalog (printed, of course) filled with expensive chess pieces made to look like characters from “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” “Star Trek” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

Chess sets such as these might look great on your coffee table, but don't try to take them to a tournament. The World Chess Federation will have none of it. They have strict rules about the size and style of the pieces and boards used for competitive play, and novelty sets have no place among chess professionals.

Why not? The difference between my basement chess set and the plastic tabletop set found at the local Starbucks is only cosmetic. Chess is chess, and the rules are exactly the same no matter how large the board or what the pieces look like.

Playing with our huge set gives us an entirely new perspective on the game. My wife and I have found that walking on the board among the pieces and lifting them with two hands gives us a very different view. We have even noticed that our playing styles change when we use this set.

I should note that we don't play with our big board very often. It remains a novelty in our house. If we played with it every day, I am sure we would get used to it, and our strategy and tactics would match those we employ with a regulation chess set.

Changing it up

What we get from playing a familiar game with unfamiliar equipment is a new perspective. When we do something repeatedly and do it well, it becomes instinctive. Practice makes perfect. This is what makes us professionals.

As skill is gained, something is also lost. We stop analyzing each move we make. Good thing, because whether running a business or playing a game, we can't afford to spend time focusing on every step we take. The problem comes when we get so good at what we do that we don't even think about it anymore. There are times when our business processes would benefit from more thoughtful analysis.

I mentioned that my frequent chess opponent is my spouse. She and I are very well matched; we are used to each other's style and fairly equal in ability. When either of us faces a different opponent, we are forced to make serious adjustments to our play, or to be badly beaten.

Has your firm ever acquired a new customer only to lose it after a few jobs, even though it seemed like a good fit? Often, this occurs when the new client has expectations that are just a little bit different from your longtime top customers. You've done everything right (at least, as you know “right” to be), and yet, the new client still isn't satisfied.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the new customer isn't comfortable. You had the right price, your quality was good and you delivered to work on time. What went wrong?

You don't know, because you are so wrapped up in your own policies and procedures that you can't see the forest for the trees.

Maybe the invoice went to the buyer when it should have gone to accounting. Perhaps it had too much or too little detail. Maybe you faxed change confirmations when the new client preferred email notifications. Maybe the truck driver flirted with the client, or maybe he didn't but should have. Silly little things like these add up. When I play chess with pieces that are two feet tall, I'm forced to rethink my approach to the same old game. A new customer deserves no less.