Your Scrum Playbook: It´s Poker, Not Chess
You can’t expect to meet the challenges of today with yesterday’s tools and expect to be
in business tomorrow.
Business is often compared to a chess game. It’s complex, with lots of pieces to move, and every
move changes the story, offering new opportunities and closing off others. In theory, a chess
player can calculate every possible scenario before each move. They may sometimes think for an
hour, analyzing the situation, breaking complex problems apart, considering different scenarios,
then, finally, moving a p**n one square.
While earning my MBA, and over the course of my long career in project management, I
learned to think like a chess player. Business leaders are taught to analyze situations, break
complex problems apart, plan for different contingencies, then select the best solution and
execute it. I believed I could foresee every step if I consulted the right experts. My Gantt charts
felt like works of art—so many departments, each with so many goals, all coming together
finally in a smooth flow, a waterfall. I’ve worked on projects where the planning phase lasted
two years before we opened the dam and the actual work began.
Unfortunately, in business, you can’t see all the pieces laid out on the board, and the
moves are unlimited. Everything you do is based on the assumptions you made at the beginning,
1 Alan J. Stolzer, Carl D. Halford, and John J. Goglia, Safety Management Systems in Aviation (Burlington, VT:
Ashgate, 2008), 219.
but by the time you deliver the project, a new queen may have stepped onto the board and flicked
half the other pieces off the edge.
According to Peter Senge, founder of the Society for Organizational Learning and senior
lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, today’s problems come from yesterday’s
decisions, and business decisions are more like bets on the future than chess moves. There are
rogue queens out there: things you depended on may suddenly disappear, and pathways you
never dreamed of may become discernible in the new landscape.
Traditional project planning worked very well during the first Industrial Revolution—
the age of the steam engine. It was perfect for the second revolution, the era when Gantt charts
were invented and assembly lines created every kind of machine. In the third revolution, the age
of robotics, it proved essential. But any manager who started planning a large project in the mid-
1990s finished it in an entirely new era, one very few had foreseen.
Business decisions predicated on assumptions are difficult to track over time. Many years
may pass before a result is seen, making it nearly impossible to track that result back to the
original decision. The longer the gap is between the decision made and the results delivered, the
more difficult it will be to determine which decision delivered those results. Therefore,
minimizing the time from decision-making to decision impact should be a major goal of any
organization. Shortening the gap between making decisions and seeing the consequences makes
for more accurate future predictions and assumptions and provides immediate feedback to help
team members improve their game.
The Gantt chart was developed in 1910 and is still the preferred way to illustrate project
planning within businesses. The idea is that you break a complex problem into smaller ones,
hoping that by solving each small problem, you will have solved the big one. This approach
leads to localized optimization: each unit (person or team) remains focused on a small part of the
problem. They never have a view of the overall picture or understand their connection with the
rest of the project. Still, managers desire an exact plan that is as accurate and predictable as they
can get. Creating this chart can take months of effort, demands a high level of detail, and is not
flexible to changing environments. Since life isn’t predictable, these charts rarely, if ever, hold
true. In today’s fast-changing environment, playing chess just doesn’t work. We’re playing poker
now. The fourth industrial revolution—the Internet of Things (IoT)—and digitalization have us
hurtling through changes at warp speed. We gained access to a universe of information, which
would have been a Tower of Babel if Google hadn’t slipped it into harness. Google’s
development of Google Maps allowed Uber to change the landscape of ride-sharing,