I have struggled with the word strategy all through my career. No, I haven’t struggled to make a plan or define a logical sequence of activities, but this whole strategising thing is something else that bothered me. How do you successfully get through to the other side of a challenging project to deliver, or an uncertain future for the product and team, or an unexpected change in career? Dealing with, and winning at these require more than grit or luck. Pure logic doesn’t help beyond a point. I have often heard from colleagues that life resembles a chess game, one to be mastered.
I am bad at chess.
My other problem is with the word, Art. There is an art for anything these days: “Art of speaking..”, “Art of writing…”, “Art of winning…” and of course, the ultimate “Art of living”. All my life, I was more into science and math, and I was particularly bad at art.
Bad at art, and worse at chess, I have no hope then.
I am good with reading books however, and to my pleasant surprise I landed on this book recently that carried both these words in its title: The Art of Strategy, A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life.
One of the authors of this book is a professor in the US but of Indian origin, which made me think: after all, wasn’t the Indian civilisation that gave birth to Chaturanga, the predecessor of the modern chess game? Even the famous epic Mahabharatha revolves around a game of dice gone wrong for the Pandavas. India is also the place of Chanakya the philosopher-guru who authored Artha-Shastra – a treatise similar to the more famous Art of War.
The definition of strategic thinking was very helpful: “the art of outdoing an adversary, knowing that the adversary is trying to do the same to you”, “art of convincing others, and even yourself, to do what you say.”, “art of putting yourself in others” shoes so as to predict and influence what they will do.
Out of the many strategies and approaches, the common theme for me was the element of surprise, as a winning ingredient in any strategy, especially dealing with bullies. The authors explain the best strategy to confront a powerful and intimidating bully at school, at work, or even a dictator: a sudden, visible, unexpected act of defiance by the collective.
The book as such is hard to finish, but there are some interesting parts not to be missed, especially the stories from world war, movie references (The Beautiful Mind, for example), and other real-life examples. The definitions of various game theory constructs eg. zero sum game, dominant strategy, Nash equilibrium etc. ) are well explained, until they loose you by going deep into the mathematics.
Yet, there is more to unpack from this book. It says at one point, “All of us are strategists. It is better to be a good one, than a bad one”.
That sounds to me a practical, if not a beautiful mindset.