When I was an 8 year old boy I was stricken with a viral illness for which the only prescribed treatment at the time was six weeks of bed rest.
Any parent of boys will understand the challenge this presented for my family: within a day or two I felt absolutely fine and bored rigid. There simply wasn't enough to keep an inquisitive young mind occupied within the confines of my bedroom (prior to the advent of video games, computers etc). The whole of my large family rallied around with all kinds of things to prevent me from going stir-crazy, and my Dad's contribution was to share one of the great loves of his life; he taught me how to play chess.
I don't know if it was because I was a bit young, or not very good at paying attention or whether it was my Dad's own level of skill at the game, but for whatever reason I failed to internalise the key points of a good chess game. As a result for many years I was unable to come close to winning against my Dad who was for years the only person I played against. Later, when I went to high school, I didn't even think of joining the chess club until a number of my mates had done so and progressed their skills far beyond mine. My teenage years were a long series of getting thrashed - I'm still talking about chess you understand - with my mates.
While it's true that playing someone who is much better than you improves your game, this is less true when you have a lack of fundamental skills. I never lost my love for chess, but for years I played very little and mostly on the rare occasions when I get to spend some time with my old school mates.
Last month our healthy workplace team decided that a good winter initiative would be to organize a chess tournament. So for a while now the two chessboards that have suddenly appeared in the lunchroom have been put to good use. I guess it's no surprise that a bunch of highly analytical engineering types would be good at this ancient game. I found myself once again in the situation of being out-classed, this time by my colleagues. Chess is a great leveler. The most senior person in the company can be trounced by the most recent intern, and this is a great test of organizational values. Will the most junior staff member play to the full extent of their skill against the boss? How will the boss react to constantly being beaten and how will it look that the boss isn't as good as his staff?
I'm happy to say that I think we're fine in this regard although I think maybe there are one or two people who haven't gone out of their way to engage me in a game, I don't really believe that's for any reason other than we all have to prioritise our time.
The outcome of all of this is that I have played more chess in the last six weeks than I have played in the whole of the previous 20 years and this has re-kindled my love for the game. Just playing more has improved my game immensely, but of course there's now apps that can help also. The app stores are full of chess games including ones that give step by step coaching to help fine-tune your game.
There's really no reason for lack of knowledge. If that was ever the case it certainly isn't any more. Yet one of the most difficult challenges we face is working with people who are seemingly willfully unwilling to learn new things and improve their game. Business in the digital age is every bit as competitive and challenging as a good game of chess, and even the most experienced and talented business manager can be outmaneuvered.
Good processes, staff engagement, rigorous attention to costs, cash management: these are the fundamentals of business that, like chess, haven't changed for centuries. That doesn't mean that the way we address these fundamentals isn't changing rapidly and sometimes imperceptibly.
There's an app for all of it. And if you look hard and can't find one, then look again, and if you find that there really isn't one then you can still build one - before your opponents do.
We ignore these changes at our peril. Any business that isn't looking to improve their approach to managing core business processes is placing itself a great risk and not knowing about these risks doesn't make them go away.