strategy

You Sunk My “Battleship”… and Other Thoughts on Business Strategy

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Competition is a natural part of life. You find it everywhere, from the board games you play casually with friends to the businesses that compete neck and neck with each other for greater success. Whether you are playing a game or running a business, the basic path for success remains the same: you need a clear and strong strategy to steer a steady course.

Lately, I’ve been considering one of my favorite childhood games: Battleship, and pondering about how its strategy parallels the business world. At its core, Battleship is a game in which you have to fail over and over before you win. Battleship fundamentally requires a systematic strategy of trial and error in order to find your opponent’s ships. After hitting a ship for the first time, it’s fairly easy to hit the rest of it and sink it, because you begin to see the shape of success.

Entrepreneurship shares similar traits. You can make educated guesses or accurate predictions when you’re strategizing, but there is never a 100 percent guarantee for success. This is what makes it so crucial to be meticulous and plan ahead. In Battleship, you want to actively discern where your opponent has placed their pieces. It’s essential to be ready to readjust your plan if necessary, to course correct yourself if you find that certain areas of attack are simply not working.

Battleship shows entrepreneurs that it’s going to take some time to get your bearings — it’s nearly impossible to do everything right the first time when starting a business, just like it’s nearly impossible that you’ll go a whole game of Battleship without missing at all. You can’t reasonably expect either scenario to happen, so understanding the trial and error approach will better equip you to pick yourself back up from failure in order to keep moving forward and eventually find the shape of success.

In any game, and with any business, you are playing to win. Strategy and competition is zero-sum: there are a limited amount of resources to be had by each participant. You either work to boost your own resources above your opponent or try and deplete your opponent’s resources — this is true in Battleship (and in Monopoly or Settlers of Catan or any other strategy game) and this is also certainly true in business.

Bill Gross TED talk – The single biggest reason why start-ups succeed @Bill_Gross

This is why it’s important to have a well-thought-out strategy and be prepared to change it as necessary. If you’re playing against someone by relying on chance and luck rather than a well-thought-out strategy, you’re way worse off because the game is a two-sided equation: your opponent is certainly not going to simply hope for the best, they are going to do everything in their power to win, and that means trying to find a strategic way to beat you and win.

Battleship is unexpectedly also an exercise in listening. The game is particularly fascinating in that it requires open and honest communication between opposing players. When one player calls out a grid number, the other person must declare whether their opponent has hit or missed a ship. Once a ship has been sunk, the opposing player must say so to their opponent. Business strategy decisions have very clear responses — investors, consumers, employees and partners, the general public all have an opinion — but you have to be listening for it. Are you open to accept the feedback?

When you pay attention to the response, you begin to understand where strengths rise and weaknesses lie veiled. If your product isn’t being well-received, listening will likely reveal vital information that could affect your strategy. Of course, you have to know how to listen. You have to have the right tools. Perhaps you’ve been marketing to the wrong target audience, or you should have been focusing on one of your product’s features over others. In the way that your Battleship opponent tells you if your decision was right or wrong, there are many who will also keep you informed and aware of what’s working and what’s not in your business. Have you surrounded yourself with advisors and colleagues that can help you circumnavigate these experiences in an effortless and easy manner?

When approached with the right mindset, Battleship is fun no matter if you win or lose. What matters the most is the process, and learning from the process as much as you can creates the enjoyment that many feel while competing.

There’s so much value in playing the game itself, and the lessons you gain while doing so are what lead to future success. Winning a game is accompanied with a short-lived burst of elation… but the lessons and small wins along the way to the big win will provide a path to a lifetime of successes. 

Likewise, entrepreneurs can find fulfillment in their business endeavors whether they are successful or not in securing that “BIG FINAL WIN” at the end of the race, as long as they are fully invested in the process and are open and willing to learn from the experience. Without working through the process, entrepreneurs can never hope to find success in their future or experience the true joy of competing in business strategy.

Remember when you studied maths or science? The majority of the points were gained in showing how you achieved your final solution, not in the provision of the final solution itself. You could even score marks just in getting some of the steps right, even if the final solution was erroneous.

Challenges and competitions are healthy for entrepreneurs. They drive us to be deeply involved in process-based outcomes instead of the false positives of seeming “big wins”. Keeping in mind that it’s all a game of Battleship or similar offers that meaningful series of regular rewards that help keep us on track and stay motivated. They also ensure that even if the final goal you set out to achieve is not fully met, you’re left with a wealth of riches from each successful milestone.