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Training Yourself To See New Strategic Options

I just returned from a long weekend skiing with the kids and some friends. We rented a house that sits against the edge of a frozen lake, nestled in pine trees, 10 minutes from ski slopes. Saturday morning, stepping into our cars on our way to the slopes, I reminded one friend of the house’s garage door code: "Twelve thirty-four."

He looked at me oddly, paused, and said, "You mean 1-2-3-4?"

It hit me then. I had been trying to remember "twelve thirty-four," not realizing that the code was as simple as "1-2-3-4."

At the choice between these two ways of remembering lies the key to great strategists. Do you think "twelve thirty-four" or, like master chess players and other great strategists, "1-2-3-4"?

You see, the strategic choices we make every day are determined by the "strategic narratives" we tell ourselves. We face a challenge and we don’t ask, "What does Porter’s Five Forces tell me to think about?" or "What does Clayton Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation model tell me to do?" No, we ask ourselves, "What does this remind me of?"

The challenge you face today may remind you of a problem you faced in the past, and if what you did in the past worked, you will simply want to try the same strategy again.

For my new book, Outthink the Competition, I got a chance to interview Alexandra Kosteniuk, the reigning women’s world chess champion, and get some insight into how she can see the winning strategic move in a chess game when her opponent cannot. What she describes fits perfectly with the research into how great chess players win.

She looks at the board, and while I am thinking in terms of "things"—pawns and knights—she is thinking in terms of "sequences." She sees the board and actually recognizes the game—she has played this game before, and so she knows the winning move.

In other words, I try to juggle multiple things in my head—"twelve" and "thirty-four"—while she just recognizes one story—"1-2-3-4"—and so is able to see with ease that the next move is "5."

Your ability to see new strategic options is a function of the number and variety of stories you recognize. Indeed, it has been shown that grandmaster chess players recognize 10 times as many stories (games) as experts.

What strategic narratives are you going to tell yourself today to see new options that will surprise your competition and lead you to breakthrough solutions?

This week I am working on closing three major agreements for my business. I ran the free "Strategem Selector" on my website (, went through the strategic narratives it recommends, and here are the three that I will be thinking about. Try these on for yourself as well. Write them down on a card, and every time you face a decision today, pull out the card and see what new solutions these narratives reveal:

  1. What "brick" can you give away? The story goes like this: You give up something of relatively little value to you and exchange it with your partner/customer for loyalty. This is like HP selling printers for low profit in order to make money selling ink cartridges.
  2. Who else benefits if you win? The story goes like this: You face a tough situation but you find an unexpected ally who benefits by you winning. You partner with that person and they help you succeed. This is like AFLAC becoming one of the leading insurance firms in Japan by partnering with the government, decades ago, to provide cancer insurance at the height of what many feared was a cancer epidemic.
  3. To where can you move the action? The story goes like this: You are in one business but competition enters, so you create a new related business and move your profits into this new business. This is like Thomson Travel in the U.K., which people know as a travel retail business, but that actually pools its profit through a charter airline business.

Let me know how these three narratives work for you. I’m sure they will reveal a trove of new ideas and will also expand your possibilities.

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[Image: Flickr user Tim Green aka atoach]