Unlearn your Winning Moves

Leadership Blog  |  4 minute read

Mike Straw

Written by Mike Straw

Unlearn your Winning Moves
The recent crisis on the high street has illustrated how change in today’s business environment can quickly catch-up with, and catch-out, even established leaders. The need for transformation in all industries is constantly reiterated – yet actually transforming has proven consistently difficult. Over time all organisations develop their own game plans for success. They know what works for them, and increasingly rely on these approaches to win. When things start to change the natural reaction is to double down on what has made them successful in the past. Individuals are the same. Each of us has a personal set of winning moves that have helped us get where we are today. But, to go beyond what we see as possible now, either as an individual or as an organisation, we need to unlearn our winning moves in order to adopt new ones.

 Garry Kasparov, Chess Grandmaster, Tweet The Gravity Of Past Success "success convinces you it's not necessary to examine your practices, a fatal mistake"

If it ain’t broke…

Of course, it is very hard, almost impossible to put aside the strategies, behaviours and approaches that have been successful so far. We call them ‘Winning Moves’ because throughout our lives they have been effective in getting us the things we want. Why change things that have been working for so long? For businesses this is often articulated as the risk of adopting innovative approaches versus the stability of proven markets, products and channels. For individuals it is different. Our ‘Winning Moves’ are not a defined strategy or playbook, but a complex arrangement of beliefs, actions and behaviours that are deeply embedded in the way we are.


For most of us our Winning Moves are unconscious. We have built them for ourselves bit by bit throughout our lives, through trial and error and experience. They are part of who we are and our ways of being. When we encounter situations we instinctively listen and look for how we can deploy our winning moves and remain consistent with our view of how the world should work. For the most part this has been a highly effective way to succeed. But as Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov once remarked, the temptation to stick with the status quo leads to stagnation.


“When you are already doing well the temptation to stick with the status quo can be overwhelming, leading to stagnation.”

- Garry Kasparov, Chess Grandmaster


The groove becomes first a rut and finally a grave

The challenge is that whilst we are in our ‘groove’ we are blind to the alternative possibilities that exist. As John Paul Getty said. “The groove becomes first a rut and finally a grave.” This is the lesson that many formerly successful businesses are learning too late, as the world around them undermines and ultimately destroys the circumstances in which their strategies worked. Internet shopping and next day delivery radically transformed the retail environment long before the COVID pandemic shuttered bricks and mortar stores.


Unlearn your own winning moves

Corporate examples are easy to see, but Winning Moves are just as powerful for individuals and represent the same risk. We unconsciously develop a commitment to our winning moves that might not always serve us as circumstances change. Our natural response when faced with change, or situations where things seem not to be working out is to defend and focus in on what we know to have worked in the past. But this leads to stress as the gap between expected results and reality grows. The successful leader, just like the successful business, uses times of change to step-outside of their way of being to reassess what will lead to success in the future.

The ability to unlearn what has made you successful to date is fundamental to the breakthrough thinking that allows leaders to envision and deliver new futures that others deem impossible. Understanding and acknowledging that you have a set of winning moves which shape your thinking and behaviour is the first step. They are not wrong, and they have served you well, but holding too tightly to them prevents you from seeing new moves that could work better.


Listen for the questions you always ask

To reveal our unconscious winning moves it is helpful to question the questions we usually ask. The little voice in our heads is always prompting us to ask the questions that open the door to our winning moves. Challenging ourselves to look beyond these can help us step outside of these routines and identify new approaches. Imagine a new CEO joining the organisation of you – how would they look at your winning moves, and what would they change? What is the conventional wisdom they would challenge and what new ideas could they bring from outside?


It will be difficult and intellectually demanding, but consciously becoming aware of your preferred winning moves delivers new choices. Things which have been accepted as impossible can become achievable. New potentials can be created and new futures envisaged when leaders free themselves from the constraints of established winning moves. The exhaustion and stress of constantly striving to fit a changing world into the static framework of what has worked before is replaced by energy and the possibility of new ways of being.


The temptation for any leader facing times of change is to focus back on what they know has worked. But unlearning what has made you successful so far and stepping outside of the tried and trusted, will lead to what Gary Kasparov calls, “Beautiful or paradoxical moves that were not on your initial list of candidates,” and lead to new success.


Published 21/01/2021

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