Business lessons from the World Chess Championship Match Carlsen – Anand | Part 4: Paying attention to details

Chess offers useful insights for business. On occasion of the current World Chess Championship 2014, I will highlight in a series of articles different business lessons to be learned from the game of kings. In part four, I explain why paying attention to details pays off in chess and business.

Champions like Carlsen and Anand pay attention to details.
Champions like Carlsen and Anand pay attention to details.

Top chess players can focus their attention for a long time, even in positions that do not seem to be overly exciting to the average player. More importantly, top players focus their attention on the critical details in a position, which reflects their deep understanding of the structure and relationships of the pieces. Game 4 of the world championship match presented a good example of how Magnus Carlsen and Vishy Anand pay attention to important details.

Carlsen with the white pieces had not achieved much in the opening. Thus, the position was in a dynamic balance in the middle game, while each exchange of pieces seemed to bring the game closer to a seemingly unavoidable draw. Situations like this are psychologically not easier to handle than complicated, unbalanced positions. The main challenge is to sustain your focus and stay vigilant for your opponents threats and potential opportunities hidden in the position.

After some more exchanges, the game had reached an endgame with only one queen and pawns on each side. In one critical position at move 41 it seemed that Anand with the black pieces had two equally good queen moves, which both looked to be good enough for an easy draw.

In the press conference, Anand explained that in his prior calculation he had the intention to make the first, obvious queen move. But then he saw a hidden opportunity for White, which would have led to a slight White advantage. Anand chose a better move and finally drew without difficulty. However, if he had not paid full attention to the details of the position in the critical situation, he might have had to struggle. While in retrospect commentators find it easy to identify the critical junctions in the course of the game, it is far from easy to understand during the game that you have reached a critical junction, which requires mastery and focused attention.

Industry leaders care for details

You may have already guessed the business lesson from this story: pay attention to details on all levels and in all areas of your business. Many excellent companies, which are often – not accidentally – market leaders in their sector, have a corporate philosophy that encourages and rewards attention to detail. Famous examples of corporations that have become global market leaders by paying attention to detail are retailer Wal-Mart and car manufacturer Toyota. These two companies have demonstrated successfully what American football player and coach Lou Holtz meant when he said: “In the successful organization, no detail is too small to escape close attention.”

Boring is the new interesting

Like in a chess game, there is no magic spotlight highlighting the areas of your business you should direct your attention to. It requires continuous effort to find these areas and the details that deserve your attention. If something is mundane and seemingly boring, it could be easily overlooked as an area for improvement. And yet, it might offer hidden potential. Try to adopt the attitude suggested by mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn: “When you pay attention to boredom it gets unbelievably interesting.” Or to put it more provocatively: boring is the new interesting.

Especially world champion Magnus Carlsen has shown in many of his games that seemingly boring positions offer sufficient room for creating opportunities. The same is true for business champions like Ikea who pay meticulous attention to detail from product design through choice of materials to production, distribution and sales. Many of these details could appear boring. However, they make the difference between excellent strategy execution with high profits and mediocre strategy execution with mediocre profits. If you want to go beyond mediocre, you should follow the champions and pay close attention to details.