by Phil Wilson

Life (And Labor Strategy) Is Like A Game Of Chess

Have you ever heard a union campaign is like a chess match? My guess is you’ve probably said it at some point. Today is round 9 of the World Chess Championship. For the first time since the famous Fisher-Spassky match of 1972 an American, Fabiano Caruana, is competing for the title of World Champion against Magnus Carlson from Norway. After 8 rounds in London the match is tied at 4 points each. Every game so far has ended in a draw.

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that you’re NOT a big chess fan. Not many people are. If you’re like most people you probably can think of about a million things you’d rather watch than two guys staring at a chess board for hours, only to watch them agree to a tie at the end. And then to watch them do that 8 times in a row. I get it.

Not every one of these games was exciting, but most were. Each player has had winning chances. Each time their opponent managed to claw back and draw the game. Every draw increases the pressure on both players. If they remain tied after 12 games they go into a series of fast tie-breaker games. If they remain tied after the fast time control games they play one “Armageddon” game (seriously). In this sudden-death game the player with white pieces gets the advantage of the first move and an extra minute on the clock, but a draw is a victory for the player with the black pieces.

As I’ve watched the championship games it reminds me how much chess does mirror life, especially business strategy. This is especially true in labor relations strategy. Here are a few of the ways that stand out to me.

  1. Preparation pays off: Heading into this match the current world champion was considered a formidable favorite to retain the title he’s won 3 times in a row. He is the highest rated player in the world. Many top experts believe he is unbeatable even by world number 2 Caruana (who is just 3 points lower than Carlsen at this point). But Caruana showed up more prepared than the champion. He’s only been in serious trouble once (in the first game) and has had chances coming out of the opening phase of the game several times. This is just as true for labor strategy. If you spend time preparing for all the likely outcomes you are in the best position to defend yourself when needed and to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. In labor strategy this means things like preparing response teams (and preparing them to deal with the conversations and presentations you expect them to handle). It means preparing campaign communications and websites in advance. It also means preparing leaders to understand the early warning signs of problems.
  2. Stay calm under pressure: As each game in the match grows in intensity you can see the stress mount on each player. And at moments in each game you can see the players wonder whether they’ve just made a move that might cost them the championship. This is especially true of the champion, Carlsen, who is much more expressive during games (one of Caruana’s strengths is his “poker face” even when his position is unpleasant). It is important to remember this, especially during labor campaigns. Your opposition during a campaign will make “good moves” and put your team in a tough spot multiple times. The key to winning, however, is to stay calm and not overreact to these moves. Don’t let your strategy get dictated by what the union is doing, and remember you don’t have to respond to every move they make. Instead, stay focused on your own strategy and tactics. This doesn’t mean that you ignore your opposition, only that you respond in a way that furthers your strategy instead of theirs.
  3. Use data to identify strengths and weaknesses: The world of chess has changed dramatically over the last few years as chess computers (called engines) are now much better than any human (the top chess engine would have no problem crushing both Carlsen and Caruana). These days anyone has access to the smartest chess player on the planet on their cell phone or laptop. After each game the engine helps evaluate how you did, where you could do better in the future, and where you and your opponent are vulnerable. The world of labor strategy today is also rich with data. It is important to use all of the internal and external data you have available to identify and manage risks throughout your organization. This helps you dedicate resources to your most vulnerable locations and avoid problems long before they spin out of control.
  4. Defense is often the best offense: In today’s game Caruana had a chance to grab a defenseless piece but instead moved his queen into a defensive position. The chess engines revealed that his move was the right one - had he grabbed the extra piece he would have been in a very unpleasant position a few moves later and at risk of losing the game and perhaps the match. Good defense is also the best labor strategy. You want to focus your organization “Left of Boom” and make sure that you are a hard target for union organizers. This is a much stronger strategy than having a strong response to events that happen. Obviously you need to have both, but you’ll never lose a campaign that doesn’t happen. That should be your goal.

I hope that Fabiano Caruana is able to win one of the last 3 games (game 9 was drawn while writing today’s article) and the world championship. If he does, it will be because of his strong preparation (including the use of great data), his calm demeanor, and superior strategy. My hope for you is that you put those same tools to use in your labor strategy.