Beyond set rules

Much of the education of an aspiring entrepreneur involves acquiring processes and methods. Most of them are a product of someone’s success captured in a formula or framework. An example is that of the business model canvas, a template for understanding the logic of a business; how a business runs and makes money. One can say that this is the condensed form of a business plan. Another example is that of a vision statement, where the formula goes like this: tell us where your business is in 5 or 10 years, use words such as to be number 1, leading or best, and state the area or location where this will happen. Do not get me wrong, these are all good and useful, however, more is needed in running a serious business. What else, aside from processes and formula are needed?

Let me introduce you to Bruno Munari an artist, designer, and inventor. He is best known for his “Useless Machine” artwork. Pablo Picasso considers him as the modern da Vinci. One can understand Munari’s design philosophy from this statement:
“Today it has become necessary to demolish the myth of the ‘star’ artist who only produces masterpieces for a small group of ultra-intelligent people. It must be understood that as long as art stands aside from the problems of life it will only interest a very few people. Culture today is becoming a mass affair, and the artist must step down from his pedestal and be prepared to make a sign for a butcher’s shop (if he knows how to do it). The artist must cast off the last rags of romanticism and become active as a man among men, well up in present-day techniques, materials and working methods. Without losing his innate aesthetic sense he must be able to respond with humility and competence to the demands his neighbors may make of him.

The designer of today re-establishes the long-lost contact between art and the public, between living people and art as a living thing. … There should be no such thing as art divorced from life, with beautiful things to look at and hideous things to use. If what we use every day is made with art, and not thrown together by chance or caprice, then we shall have nothing to hide.”

It was that statement that made me interested more in him because this statement can also be said about entrepreneurs today, and I thought that maybe we can learn a thing or two from him which we can relate to business. This is what I found from one of his essays:
“The secrets of any trade that is pursued with serious intentions are more than a series of rules and working methods based on logic and experience and applied so as to obtain the greatest possible effect with the least amount of effort. They also include a continuous process of observations, thoughts and ideas that are pushed ahead even if at the beginning they seem to have no logical basis.”

Munari’s statement tells us that aside from set of rules, or formula, one must also include observation, thoughts, ideas and action even if it seems illogical. The important element in his statement is observation and illogical action. First, observation. Based on his essay, he said that observation can stimulate deeper research. So, it is the ability to observe that gives rise to thoughts and ideas.

One day, Munari was driving, and he saw a bush and quickly observed. This observation triggered different images in his mind. The form of the bush reminded him of an exploding grenade. Then explosion triggered the image of fireworks which he then related to the growth of a tree.

Observation begins by watching something carefully and understanding the characteristics and behavior or something. The purpose of observation is to gather information and turn that information into something useful. In the case of Munari, the ideas became an essay, or it may have inspired his future artworks.

In business, one use of observation is understanding customers’ behavior; how they eat, what they do before they eat, what they do after they eat. In the famous case of Jollibee, it was observed through research that Filipinos smell their food before they eat and that gave birth to the famous “Langhap Sarap” tag line. The point is, by deliberately not relying on set of rules, adding observation and thoughts, it can bring about new ideas and insights.

Observation is so powerful that it is part of the famous Toyota Production system. One of their principles is called Genchi Genbutsu, which means go see for yourself. The idea is that the people do have to be in the place where things are happening to be able to see, observe and gather information.

One of the products of observation is Toyota Sienna. A Japanese engineer went to the US to study how families use their vans. To do this, he brought his family and went coast to coast by road. After weeks on the road, he reported his information and ideas. The result was a bigger leg room on the second row so that children will have space for their toys and other essential items. This simple change made Sienna an award-winning van.

The previous examples I gave have a logical basis since those doing the study were directly observing and having firsthand experience. What could be a business that was pushed even if the ideas born out of observation seemed illogical? Netflix mailed VHS to people at a time when people were used to going to Blockbuster Video to borrow and return movies. Another example is Pet Rock. It literally is a pet rock. An example or a stupid and illogical idea that sold millions of units in its first few months. These 2 examples were illogical, yet they became successful and I am sure that there are many others out there.

Business methods and formulas are there to serve as a guide, but those who are seriously committed to the business, must include continuous observation, thoughts, ideas and of course action even if there seem to be no logical basis. Who knows? That illogical idea may be the next Netflix or Pet Rock.

Chess and Business

Lately I have been playing a lot of chess, even learning from a coach. It was supposed to be my children who I wanted to put in the program, but they said they would rather not. Since I bugged the coach so much with questions, I decided to enroll myself rather than tell him he won’t be coaching my kids. No regrets! I am learning a new skill that I can play until all my hair is gone.

In those few sessions and from reading chess books, I learned some chess principles that can be applied in business. No, that would not be lessons like the typical plan and be a few steps ahead of your opponents. Here they are:

Photo by Pixabay on
  1. Pawns are important

We see pawns as dispensable pieces since there are 8 of them and they can only move in one direction. Once you push forward, you are already committed to it. That is why we only see them as tradable pieces early in the game. I was wrong in seeing pawns from that perspective. They are more important than I thought.

Pawns are the only pieces that can be promoted in exchange for captured pieces towards the end of the game. That gives them their value and they are the player’s last hope in the end game. 

Business application: Train your juniors for future promotion

Pawns are the office juniors and new hires in the company. They may be replaceable since there are numerous of them in the market but they are clean slates. This means that they can be trained, developed and molded to become heads who will replace leaders in the future. This assumes that these new hires have the right attitude.

  1. In the end, kings turn into warriors

The idea of chess is to win by capturing the opponent’s king while protecting your king. This is why there is such a move as putting the king inside the castle protected by pawns and a rook. But the case is different In the end game, when what is mostly left are a few pieces, maybe a pawn, knight or bishop and the king. During this part, the king is activated to support whatever piece is left. He goes behind, side or front, depending on who they are against. 

Business application: Give support to your team

In business the goal is profit and not to capture the competitor’s CEO. This means that the CEO is safe to be out there to give their support to the team without fear of being eaten by the rival company. Being out there means not sitting in the room and waiting for reports for analysis but seeing the action. By seeing the action, he will have a better perspective of the whole environment which then translates in better decision making. 

In Japan they have what they call genchi genbutsu or go and and see in english. This requires the manager to be out there in the field to go and observe. It is only when they see that they can  judge better and act accordingly.

  1. Protect your turf

The 4 middle squares in the chessboard are crucial in controlling the whole board. Putting the bishop there allows them to move along the long diagonals. Putting the knight there allows them to jump in different locations. If you don’t get to post any of your pieces there, your chances of winning drops. This is why at the start of the game, players try to dominate them. 

Business application: Get the best location for your business (retail)

Plenty of businesses do not want to spend on good locations, that means a place with high volume of traffic, primarily because of expense. However, a good location is less of a liability but more of an asset. Survey tells us that most people still buy in-store while walking in malls. 

So, how do you know which location is good for your business? One that offers the most traffic and less competition, unless you know your competitive advantage. Same goes with online platforms. Be in the most visited sites.

  1. Be excellent in every stage

There are 3 stages in chess, opening game, middle game and end game. Each stage requires different sets of skills. Opening requires that you develop pieces to give those at the back maximum freedom to move. Middle game requires decision making in terms of when and which to attack. End game requires excellence in cornering the king for a checkmate. The challenge however is that the opponent is doing the same thing and is on a quest to control the middle board creating congestion.

Business application:

In business there are different stages as well: startup, growth and decline and each stage requires a certain management skill and style. The startup requires the team to understand the logic of their business and this means identifying how the business makes money and where money comes from. There is a plan before the business starts but the plan does not always happen. In the growth stage, the phase when money comes in, the business must be able to understand and prepare for the decline stage. Here, the business is required to find innovation opportunities. The decline stage is when the business takes a different business model and applies the innovation it learned from the previous business stage.

Chess is not just a beautiful game that uses logic and creativity, it is also a wellspring of lessons that can be used in business.