Every week, our team at Refocus plays the ancient Chinese board game Go. It’s not just for team-building or fun. Go is a powerful tool for pumping strategic thinking into business. The game, which is about 5,000 years old, helps entrepreneurs make important decisions about which country to open a new business in and how to behave in the market, which projects to close, and which ones to invest in.
Each of our games is supervised by the Go teacher. He writes down the moves, and then analyzes them, asking the right questions. So, how does the game Go help achieve business goals and find problems in the team, and why is it similar to psychotherapy?
Go Is Not Just a Game
Go is a game for two players (or two teams) where one opponent plays for black stones, the other for white on a board lined with a 19×19 grid. The stones are placed in turn at the intersections of the lines and are no longer moved. The player’s goal is to occupy as much territory as possible, spending as few resources as possible. It’s just like the goal in business: to capture the market by investing a minimum of funds.
The game expands a participant’s worldview, leading him or her to think bigger and, at the same time, make informed decisions. Previously, the game was taken to the battlefield to simulate a battle, but now entrepreneurs use Go to simulate market situations. This turns business almost into a martial art.
Go gives entrepreneurs an opportunity to evaluate the decision quickly. In real life, it takes years and hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you, without strengthening a position, put a stone too far away, be ready to receive an attack from a competitor in a non-protected area. Everything in the game works exactly as it does in business.
Related: 3 Ways to Stand Out from Competitors
How We Chose the Market to Scale With Go
After one of our courses showed strong performance, we started thinking about scaling and choosing which market to bring the business to: the U.S., Latin America, or Southeast Asia. In the first case, a lot of investments were required from us, as the market was already established. But we were tempted by possible higher income opportunities. In Latin America, we already had competitors that could hinder our development. And the country that remained was India, where we already entered without investing a lot of money.
To make a decision, we turned to the Go teacher and asked him to run a game for us. As a result, we realized that the stones (investments) that we have are enough to achieve business goals in a region with no competitors and great potential for growth. We have successfully launched in India and the Philippines, attracting a customer base there. Now we plan to start working in Malaysia and Vietnam by the end of the year.
More recently, we laid out on the Go board a product strategy in a new region: how quickly we need to scale and when to build barriers for competitors. As a result, a new strategy was born over the board, which has not yet been used by anyone in the online-education market.
What Go Brings to Team Members
Playing Go helps employees find their weak points during games and overcome them, and it also further strengthens their strong suits. For example, with the help of Go, our employees have identified their differences in thinking. One specialist is ready to implement quick and tough solutions to scale the entire game board while another is more likely to have a measured pace with a focus on one part of the game board. In this way, Go allows managers to find the best use of the talents and characteristics of each employee.
This practice also encourages developing skills around shared vision, communication, flexibility, strategy, simplification and analysis of one’s own actions.
Shared vision: A team with no shared vision only performs operational tasks. It happens that more experienced players do not always explain the meaning of their actions to other team members. As a result, there is no general understanding of why the team needs this or that move. The game helps match the actions of the employee with the global goals of the company.
Communication: Go teaches that it’s a wrong strategy to play everyone for himself; you are all one team, and you should talk to each other often — not only when the situation is out of control.
Flexibility: While playing Go, employees understand that they should not get hung up on one territory. In business, this is one audience, project or product. Sometimes, as you dig into the details, you forget to zoom out and look at the whole board from above or from different angles. The game allows you to develop the flexibility to change the point of view in order to find the optimal solution.
Strategy: In both the game and business, opponents will try to confuse you. It is important not to react, give vent to emotions or immediately switch up your strategy. You need to watch what your competitors are doing, but don’t forget about your position.
Simplifying: Sometimes teams discuss long and hard about which move to make. They attach great importance to it, sorting out the options, but in the end, it turns out that everything was simpler than it seemed.
Self-analysis: It’s like working with a psychologist or a coach because the most important thing in the game is to analyze your game with the teacher.
For instance, once our head of product marketers and one of the co-founders played on the same team. They are both very prudent, so they acted cautiously and ended up in a secure but too-small position on the field. We realized that both in Go and in real life, in order to get a harmonious team, it is important to balance the skills and mindsets in the team.
Working out the moves with a teacher allows you to notice how much personality influences your choices. When the teacher asks you why you made such a move, you begin to explain it to yourself and notice your own bugs.
It’s very interesting to play with teams of different people and see what comes of it. We unite managers and subordinates, people from the same or different departments or just employees who think radically differently. This is where existing problems appear or winning combinations are determined.
What Go brings to Entrepreneurs
Go is suitable for those who want to develop as an entrepreneur and explore new horizons for their business. The game helps players develop a helicopter view, take more effective actions, and think several steps ahead.
Develop a helicopter view: Whatever new ideas you have, you need to understand the context correctly. If you are inside, it’s harder to see the whole picture. Go helps you get out of the box and look from above.
Take more effective actions: Without understanding where to direct capital or influence properly, they are wasted. The game teaches you how to be creative and expand the field of possibilities.
Think several steps ahead: Rather than doing something that will bring immediate results, it’s better to invest in the long term. Go shows you how to combine operational tasks with strategic ones.
The game Go alone does not solve all problems; it is not a magic pill or panacea. Without the desire to act and reflect, Go will not produce results. But if there is a big goal, then this is a great tool for achieving it. Take it and do it!