What A Rubik’s Cube Can Teach Us About Strategy

Rubik’s Cubes are fascinating.

As a kid, they frustrated the hell out of me.  I’d spend an afternoon with the cube in various states of chaos, thinking I was getting closer and closer, but never anywhere near solving it.

Eventually, I’d throw it across the room and loudly declare it impossible.

Come on, admit it – I’m not the only one who suspected that giving these things to kids was a cruel joke to get us to shut up and stay occupied for a while, am I?

In terms of pure numbers, it’s a fiendishly complex toy – there are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible states for it to be in.  That’s 43.2 quintillion.  That is a ridiculously large number.  For reference, to get to that number, you’d start with 42 billion.  Then multiply it by a thousand.  Then do it again.  Then do it again.

It’s no wonder that my child-self thought it was impossible.  For every way a Rubiks Cube can be considered “solved”, there are quite literally billions of ways that it can be unsolved.

So why am I writing about this here?  What does this have to do with business, or strategy?

A lot more than you might think…

Strategy and The Cube

You know as well as I do that there are far more ways for things to go wrong in your business than there are for them to go right.  Think about the sales cycle, for example – there is a process that most of your prospects need to go through to go from never having heard of you to paying you in exchange for your goods or services.  We know that there are different probabilities of achieving a sale at different ‘milestones’ along the way in this process, and we hope that prospects will move smoothly from milestone to milestone, eventually signing a contract or writing a cheque or shaking a hand and saying “Let’s do business.”

And while there can be different paths to a sale, there are an infinitely greater number of paths that lead away from it.  So many factors can work against you getting the sale – that’s why so much effort goes into crafting the process well, and sticking to that process.

The same is true of almost any strategy that you come up with in your business – the paths to success are narrow, hard to find, and can often seem dependent on luck.

Solving The Cube (And The Importance of Strategy)

Back to the Cube for a moment.  As I mentioned, this ‘toy’ tormented me as a child, and now that I know the numbers, it’s no wonder.  Solving it by chance alone would have been nearly impossible (and even if I managed to do it once, it would have been impossible to do again).  I’d occasionally pick one up in adulthood, but I’d just as quickly put it away after a few frustrating minutes, usually while muttering “Damned thing’s impossible.”

Then something cool happened.  I learned to solve it, and to be able to solve it consistently.  I can solve the cube from any state in about 3 minutes.  Yes, I know, it’s not “speed-solver” fast (the world record is a little under 6 seconds, I believe), but it’ll do just fine for me.

It turns out that there’s a really simple solution to the Rubik’s Cube that just requires 7 algorithms.  By memorizing these 7 patterns, you can solve any cube in just a few minutes.

Take a second and think about that – The difference between hours, days, months (and for some dedicated and somewhat masochistic people, years) of frustration and consistently being able to solve it all boil down to 7 patterns.  Using the right ones at the right times allows you to move progressively forward with solving it, until finally its complete.

The same is very often true in businesses.  While individual situations can be extremely complex and unique (say, as unique as the 1/43,252,003,274,489,856,000 state that a Rubik’s Cube is in at any given point), there are often simple algorithms / patterns that can be applied to move forward towards the end goal.

Strategic Patterns

In business strategy, these patterns tend to come in the form of questions – questions like:

  • “How confident are you that every employee in the business knows what’s expected of them and has the tools and resources available to accomplish that?”  Or
  • “How much time do you spend in meetings or calls with your leadership team & board of directors?”  Or
  • “Do you have a clearly laid out business strategy backed up by the tactical plan to achieve your objectives?  Are those  plans well understood by everybody in the organization?  Are those plans reasonable given the limitations that exist in your circumstances?” Or
  • “How often would you or your senior staff answer “Strongly Agree” to the question – ‘Is what you’re doing right now the highest and best use of your time?’”

Business problems often feel so fiendishly complex and unique that they’re insoluble.  But much like in solving a Rubik’s Cube, there are shortcuts and patterns that can be employed to make the solutions a lot easier.  In many cases, these patterns can only play out at the senior levels of the organization, though of course there are changes that can be made at every level to help businesses run more smoothly.

And much as in solving the Rubik’s Cube, the difference between your success rate before and after employing these patterns is remarkable.