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Stealing digital strategy ideas from the game Go

The digital business seems to have cast aside strategy models and governance — those old IT mainstays — in favor of experimentation and agility. And for good reason. “Old strategy models don’t capture new realities,” said Dave Aron, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Research Inc., at Gartner Symposium last fall.

GoMost strategy models are about “the lefthand side of the value chain,” he said, focused on producers and distributors rather than end users. But digital opportunities are a much more customer-centric initiative, and traditional models just aren’t cutting it. The real challenge for IT departments isn’t kicking strategy models to the curb — it’s figuring out how to design new models for the digital world.

Aron’s suggestion on where to find a little inspiration? Start playing Go, the oldest board game in the world, and hugely popular in countries like Japan, Korea and China.

Here’s how the game works: Two players sit opposite each other. One has a bowl of black stones; the other a bowl of white stones. Players take turns placing stones on a board with a grid-like pattern. “You don’t move stones, you just place them,” Aron said. The goal is to surround a larger total area of the board than your opponent. But here’s where things get tricky and where a mix of offensive and defensive thinking is required: Players not only need to acquire new territory but they also have to protect the territory they already acquired. If a player’s stones are surrounded by his opponents’, he loses control of the territory.

There are no dice to roll, no cards to turn over, no time limitation to adhere to. This is a game that requires strategic and tactical thinking, not unlike chess. But, whereas chess is one big battle, Go “is a war with multiple battles,” Aron said. Need more convincing that Go could influence digital business strategy? Consider this: IBM’s Deep Blue famously beat Garry Kasparov at chess in 1996 and again in 1997, but “no Go software can come anywhere near beating the best Go player in the world,” he said.

During his “maverick” session at Gartner Symposium, Aron explained how the game of Go could be applied to digital leadership and digital strategy. Here’s a handful of ideas to get you started:

1. Consider the corner. In Go, the most powerful spots on the board, and the first areas often occupied, are the corners — not the center. “Two walls of the house are already built, in a sense,” Aron said. Growing a digital business doesn’t have to mean building something shiny and brand new. Instead, figure out how to extend what you’re already doing into the digital space. “Look at the way GE talks about the industrial Internet,” he said.

2. Build a solid framework. The opening moves of Go are called fuseki. Players lay out their intentions, many times selecting a couple of different areas on the board they could develop, Aron said. Likewise, a business’ digital strategy should include more than, say, social media. “You want to adapt and explore and set up a big framework that’s loosely connected,” Aron said. Developing that framework will take time but should not be rushed. If you do hurry, “no matter how well you execute, you’re going to limit the value you create,” he said.

3. Be flexible. One of the strategic plays in Go is called sabaki , or “play lightly,” a technique once defined as “fancy footwork” utilized when conditions become hazardous or dangerous, Aron said. CIOs, take note: Especially during times of uncertainty (economic or otherwise), a little ducking and weaving may be in order. Don’t let certain assets or technologies that aren’t passing muster hold you back. Instead, be flexible. “We must be willing to cannibalize,” Aron said.

4. Nurture potential. In Japanese, agi loosely translates to taste; in the game of Go, it loosely translates to potential — both good and bad. Either can be undone in the long term, which means players have to think about their next move, as well as how each move, cumulatively, could impact their standing. CIOs, think of it as a reminder that sometimes it’s best to think long term rather than focus on immediate business outcomes, especially “in uncertain times, when we don’t know how cloud or social will play out in industries,” Aron said.

5. Listen to observers. There is an expression in Japanese Go that states, “Those who observe the game have an eight-point advantage over those who play the game,” according to Aron. “The observer has advantage of neutrality,” he said. When building a digital strategy, include digital nonexecutives and create positions on project/governance boards for people outside of the organization who have credibility but don’t have any skin in the game. They can provide a powerful perspective and ask the taboo or “stupid” questions without fear of judgment. Roles like these are traditionally used at the top of companies, but Aron suggests using them at lower levels as well, especially in digital-related initiatives.

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