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Why Agile Teams Should Play Chess

Mar 19, 2021

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Imagine a game of chess. 16 pieces, 64 squares and two opponents. It’s a very simple and controlled environment. However, after three moves each by black and white there are over nine million possible next moves.

The number of possible unique chess games is far greater than the number of electrons in the universe (roughly 10¹²⁰ vs. 10⁷⁹).

Both chess players and agile teams have to make lots of small and short-term decisions over time to achieve long-term strategies.

So, if you want to be a more effective agile team, you could start by playing more chess.

Good chess players start with overarching rules which they interpret to decide on the best moves that lead to winning games. When things get difficult and they need to adapt, they are able to use their creativity and logic to come out on top. Bad chess players play individual moves with no regard for overarching rules. They inevitably fall prey to their more adaptable opponents.

Using Rules in Chess

There are lots of rules you can use in chess but let’s use a basic example. The rules of a good opening are to:

  1. Protect your king
  2. Control the centre
  3. Move more pieces into the game.

If you follow these rules, you are successfully working towards the long term strategy of attacking the opponent king. The power of these rules is that they allow for adaptability. It doesn’t matter what your opponent does, you will be able to work towards checkmate if you follow these three rules.

Consider instead a fixed, static plan to open a game of chess:

  1. I want to move my king’s pawn to the e4 square
  2. Then I want to move my king’s knight to the f3 square
  3. Then I want to move my king’s bishop to the d3 square

Trust me, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these moves in isolation. In fact, they actually follow the above rules of a good opening. However, by thinking about a game of chess in terms of fixed, finite goals, you do not leave yourself ready to adapt to your opponent’s moves.

As I mentioned in the introduction there are 9 million possible moves at this point in a game. So a step-by-step guide for a game of chess just won’t work out.

Following rules is far more powerful than just striving for short-term goals and milestones. It allows you to adapt.

How Does This Apply to Agile?

Agile is the practise of iterative software development. Requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between cross-functional teams. Agile prescribes questioning, review and adaptation based on what the team learns.

When done well, it will lead to faster delivery of higher-quality software that ultimately delivers more value for the user and the business. Therefore, you get happier customers and budget owners. It also means happier designers and developers because they know their work is impactful.

Agile sits in contrast to waterfall, where predefined goals provide a step-by-step guide for actions. Decisions are made upfront, with empowerment removed from the team during the ongoing process. A benefit of waterfall is reduced uncertainty of the process to come, but it is far from adaptable.

A chess grandmaster would choose agile over waterfall every time.

That’s all well and good in theory, however, many agile teams do not feel very agile or adaptable at all. Why is this? It’s usually because they are playing ‘individual moves’ instead of using rules to guide their short-term decision making. The goal-based, inflexible waterfall mindset creeps in to restrict adaptability. No amount of stand ups or backlog grooming will solve that.

An Agile Product Strategy

Previously I have written in detail about how to create a values-based (rather than a goal-based) product strategy and how this can support better decision making. It makes teams truly agile.

There are four components to an agile product strategy

  1. Vision
  2. Product values
  3. Rules
  4. Measures

Here I’m going to focus on product values and rules. These are the components which are particularly important for agile teams.

Product Values and Rules

A ‘value’ is an ongoing pursuit of an ideal. Values can never be completed or ‘ticked off’ a list (unlike inflexible goals). Instead, they provide direction on how you act and behave.

An example of a personal value is trustworthy. As a person, you can never tick trustworthy off a to-do list. There are many ways to build trust. So you can use this value to guide your decision making.

Given my value of being trustworthy, I can think of some rules and rules to help me make better decisions. For example:

  • Telling the truth is usually the right thing to do
  • Stealing usually nets out worse for everyone
  • Where possible, try to be consistent in what you say

Rules like this give you adaptability in different situations. They are empowering.

Similarly, product strategies need to include values and rules to empower agile teams.

Let’s look at trustworthy as a product value — I want my customers to trust that my product is secure and reliable.

I can think of some rules and rules to guide the team to make decisions which will lead to a trustworthy product. For example:

  • Never integrate with external solutions which are not proven in the market (technology rule)
  • Always use design system elements which are inclusive to diverse users (design rule)
  • Where possible, make decisions which challenge the industry (business rule)

In the heat of a sprint, rules like this give agile teams the ability to adapt and be truly agile. They are empowering and allow creative solutions to complex problems.

This is exactly how the rules of a good chess opening help players to adapt and make better decisions when the enemy rook is bearing down on their queen.

The key to successful adaptability is being able to continue working towards something meaningful whilst side-stepping obstacles immediately in front of your path. This is why values and rules are so important. They empower you and allow you to make short term decisions which always track towards the long term value.

Key takeaways

Thinking in terms of rules has big benefits for agile teams. It makes you more adaptable. Playing chess exercises this ability. So agile teams should play chess.

In chess, your choices have consequences. The same is true when developing a digital product. You face challenges and solve problems. Chess can help you to think ahead, not rush your decisions, and weigh up decisions. Playing too quickly, and rushing your decisions can lead to negative consequences. Adhering to rules and using an agile product strategy will lead to better outcomes. The same is true for agile teams.

If you would like to know more about product management or talk about how Monstarlab can support your team, please get in touch. You can find me on twitter.

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