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On water, chess and strategic planning

By Farhad Mukhtarov.  When Karl Wittfogel, in 1957, published his seminal book “Oriental Despotism“, his claim that state-formation and organization of societies in hierarchies originated from large structural works, mainly irrigation in Mesopotamia and in the Yellow River in China, received much attention.  While the hypothesis of Wittfogel on the link between large-scale irrigation works and “despotism” is currently rejected, the Chinese water engineers can be credited for another achievement: they laid the foundation of the game of chess. Dr. David Lee in “The Genealogy of Chess” directly tied the control of water and disastrous flooding to the creation of the ancient board game of Go and the later game of Xiang Qi, which is seen as a prototype of modern chess. Chess, like water management, reached Europe through the Arab world from where the Moors brought it to the Southern Europe in their conquests.

What can water managers learn from chess players?

But parallels between the two occupations are not finished with the origins and the history. There is much to learn from chess for water managers as chess may be seen as a “laboratory of decision-making” and management. Below are a few suggestions on what water managers and practitioners may derive from the experiences and writing related to chess. Often the link is via the field of  “strategic planning” as a nexus between chess and water management.

1) Do not take strategy too seriously. Chess is a symbol of rational decision-making and strategic planning. Yet, many decisions are  based on the flow of the game, and strategic moves may well be followed by tactical combinations. As strategic management guru and professor of management at McGill University Henry Mintzberg argues in his book ‘The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning‘ there is more space for intuition in “strategic management” than for planning.  He  claimed that analysis often brings paralysis, and many more decisions must be made based on intuition. An example of “paralysis by analysis” he brings comes from chess:

“Let us suppose that at one point of the game you have a choice between the two moves, one by rook and one by knight…Which should you play? You settle down comfortably in your chair and start your analysis silently saying to yourself the possible moves. ‘All right, I could play the rook…and he would probably play…, or he could take my queen which is now undefended…What then?” Do I like the look of the position then? You go one move further in your analysis and then you pull a long face – the move by rook no longer appeals to you. Then you look at the knight move….(then once you do not see a good option, you go back to the first move to check it again)…at this point you glance at the clock. “My goodness! Already 30 minutes gone on thinking on what to play. If this goes on like this you will be in a real time trouble. And then you’re suddenly struck with a happy idea, why to move a rook or a night, you may play with a bishop! And without any more ado, without any analysis at all you move the bishop. Just like that, without hardly any consideration at all (Kotov, 1971: 15-16).”

Does this remind you policy change in water governance / flood management when proposals wait in bureaucracies and discussions go on and on until a crisis happens, and then one of the possible options  is advanced just to be played, to respond to the crisis? Suddenly deliberation is no longer crucial! Or perhaps, decision-making in bureaucracies where policy proposals are subject to regulatory impact assessment and cost-benefit analysis, which go on for a long time among technocrats until the moment there is no time left before politicians want a decision and suddenly decisions are made, but based not on CBA considerations whatsoever…

2) Software is more important than hardware! As Diego Rasskin-Gutman writes in his recent book “Chess Metaphors”, chess is “an unparalleled laboratory, since both the learning process and the degree of ability obtained can be objectified and quantified, providing an excellent comparative framework on which to use rigorous analytical techniques”. Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion who is now active in politics, consulting CEOs and writing contributions in widely read outlets such as the New York Review of Books, adds to this that decision-making process of chess is a model for understanding and improving our decision-making elsewhere.  Let’s see one example of chess and implications for management. A popular on-line playing website http://www.playchess.com/organized an Internet tournament in 2005. Called ‘free-style”, this tournament allowed teams of human players to be assisted by computers during chess games. Normally, computers are not allowed in such competitions.  One would expect that a team made of a strong grand-master and a strong computer would win the tournament. Yet, the surprising result of the tournament revealed the winner – the American team of two chess amateurs and three strong chess machines being used at the same time. Not grand-masters! Strong grandmaster+strong machine+ inferior process lost to amateur+strong machine+better process.

Here is where I think about the importance of management and the process, and that it is not the necessity to invest and improve the hardware, improvements may as well be made to the software. Think of the UNDP Human Development Report of 2006 which claimed that the crisis of water is not the crisis of funding or infrastructure in the first place, but the crisis of poor management and unequal power relationships. This also boils down to the debate of institutions versus infrastructure. While I would not say that one is more important than the other, and they are interrelated obviously, the process must not be ignored!

3) Know how to let go! Is planning necessary in water management and can we control the nature? The illusion of control is something that Mintzerg suggests as a function of planning. In chess, planning is a necessity. Games are won by elegant plans. Yet, plans are abandoned, changed and the situation on the board always guides the flow of the game. Strategies and plans emerge from the game. And this is what Mintzberg also refers to as “emergent strategies” vis a vis “deliberative strategies”. Again, the distinction between the two is more analytical than empirical, there are no pure versions of deliberate or emergent strategies. The first would assume no learning, the second – no control, and some mix of the two are always present. Yet, the ability to go with the flow is important for water management, especially those who have wet dreams of dams and dikes that would long over-survive the creators. Just like suggested by Charles Lindblom half a century ago for public sector management. And why are we obsessing about planning: both in chess and water management?

4. How many moves ahead? Once a great Cuban world chess champion Jose Raul Capablanca was asked how many moves ahead he is able to see in a chess game. He famously responded: ‘one, the best one’. Chess is very complex mathematically, which is amazing for a game played on 64 squares. The number of legal chess positions is 1040, the number of different possible games, 10120. Just to help visualization, a player looking eight moves ahead is already presented with as many possible games as there are stars in the galaxy. A true master in chess knows the principles of the game, and while tries to calculate ahead a few moves, chooses plausible moves on his side and best responses from an opponent. The great difference between the human and the machine is that the first ‘thinks’ and chooses moves plausibly, limiting the choice to few options before making the final choice, the machine tediously and systematically looks at thousands of possible moves in a position. That much for artificial intelligence! Similarly, in water management, or any type of management – the ability to narrow down the choices and do so intelligently and then consider only the few good moves is what saves energy and makes good managers and decision-makers, and results in better policies, including water policies.

Chess is known to be a game, but the only game on Earth that is also considered to be science, sport and art at the same time. Science as there are thousands of books written on the subject, there is “theory” and “transnational epistemic community”. Art, as there are prizes for beauty, for spectacular games, there is an aesthetic element to chess that is evident to all players who derive pleasure not from winning and crushing the ego of the opponent, but from the beauty created on the board with the opponent. Finally, chess is a sport – yes, here you are driven by the desire to crash the egos around. With the rise of computers, chess is becoming more of a science than art or sport, yet it is also becoming more and more useful as a laboratory for managers and anyone interested in human cognition. There is so much more to learn from chess!




Permanent link to this article: http://www.watergovernance.eu/science-and-policy/on-water-chess-and-strategic-planning/

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