Constraints-Based Thinking, Strategy As An Art And Chess Puzzle

Recently I attended a leadership meeting where I had a brief discussion with Business Unit Head about the Strategy of our company not to diversify and focus on only one specific Industry vertical i.e. Banking and Financial Services (BFS). This was about Data and Analytics capabilities.

I made a point with an analogy which was well appreciated by the BU head. I said that Data and Analytics is a horizontal capability. It can be extended to other business verticals in addition to BFS. Telecom sector, for example, is a big consumer of Data and Analytics. So is FMCG or Retail.

My analogy was as follows: If you consider Data and Analytics capability as “ability to hit the ball hard with a bat” AND if you happened to be in India then the right sport for you was Cricket. But with the same capability if you happened to be in the US, the right sport for you would be Baseball and not Cricket. The same is true for Data and Analytics. Depending on the geography or the industry vertical, the same capability could be extended to multiple places. Why should we give up on all other opportunities and focus exclusively on BFS?

My BU Head has a very open mindset and appreciated my comment and then he responded to my point. He said that given that we are still a small organisation and don’t have the breadth and resources to go after all other industries, we should focus on BFS for few years – till we reach a stage where our size and scale can be extended to other industry verticals. He said, “continuing from your analogy – if Sachin Tendulkar played Cricket in India all his life and if he moved to the US and started playing Baseball overnight, would he succeed? The right way for him would be to play Cricket wherever he went and be the King in that sport.”

Then he further elaborated using the concept of Constraints-Based Thinking. He said, being constrained is not always bad. It’s sometimes a good thing. It drives you to focus on one thing you do well and then maximise your returns by working within the given set of constraints. Without constraints you may go all over the place and lose focus.

It reminded me of my Professor at IIM-A who used to say” “Strategy is an art of closing doors”. It is the choices that you DO NOT take (i.e. close the doors on those choices) which defines your strategy. If you are everything to everybody then you are nothing to nobody. By closing the doors you narrow the focus and shape up the strategy.

I like how these things are interwoven and help us connect the dots.

Constraints based thinking also struck a chord when I though about solving puzzles. Let’s take an example of the following Chess Puzzle.

In below puzzle White is supposed to play and win.

Prima facie it may appear a balanced game with slightly upper hand to white (one extra pawn). So your line of thinking would be different if I tell you “White to play and win” – an open ended (or unconstrained) problem statement. You may pursue multiple lines which eventually lead to victory, but not always the optimised or the best possible line.

However if I put a constraint and say: “White to play and mate in 3 moves” suddenly the added “constraint” shapes up our thinking. Now our line of thought is focused on the perfect combination of 3 best moves which help you win. This could be considered similar to Constraint-Based Thinking. By imposing the constraints we restrict free thinking and give it a direction/focus.

When you consider that you have to mate in 3 moves, you know that every move you make should lead to a forced response from the Black.

So I followed that chain of though and came up with the answer.

White – Black

Rxf8+ – Rxf8 … (if Kxf8 then Qh8 mate. And if Kh7 then again Qh8 mate))

Rg1+ – Kh7

Qg7 mate!

In nutshell, Constrains-based thinking is effective in narrowing our focus and shaping up our thinking!

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