Seizing the Middle
A forward-thinking chess strategy to control the board’s center applies to real-world scenarios. In business or economics, an entity claims a critical resource or domain to limit an adversary’s choices in the future. The group that controls the space has more flexibility and can outmaneuver opponents, making their success more probable.
Why Use It
Like the sun in the solar system, the pieces on a chessboard revolve and rely on the center. Overlooking the center squares can be disastrous as pieces move to either flank quickly from there. By securing the middle, you have more options going forward.
When to Use It
In chess, a player seizes the middle at the beginning of the game. With the tactical advantage in place, they control board movement, and more opportunities are available.
The same is true in business. Controlling a consequential domain gives an organization leverage, whether in financial terms or market position. The result is an ability to set the rules of engagement by owning a needed resource and ultimately increased revenue.
How to Use It
Chess is analogous to other domains. Matches are a space for strategic thinking and deliver positive or negative feedback after each move. In the combinatorial game, two players compete against each other, taking turns, and each has perfect knowledge of the game. Nothing is hidden. The ability to think many moves ahead is one of the primary ways advanced players win, and controlling the middle is a part of a forward-thinking approach.
A chess player can seize the middle by taking specific actions:
- Move their pawns into the center squares.
- Battle for the middle space, chase the opponent’s pieces.
- Control as many central squares as possible, restricting the opponent’s choices.
- Neutralize an opponent’s pieces by pinning them down.
- Trade a flank-positioned pawn for a central-positioned one.
Several notable people in business have played similar games in their industry:
- Jeff Bezos saw an opportunity for bookstores to evolve. He launched Amazon in 1994 as “Earth’s biggest bookstore” but later began selling other goods. By 2002, he changed the slogan to “Amazon.com, and you’re done.” It disrupted book distribution by leveraging the digital space and seizing the middle. Amazon then leveraged its clout to dominate adjacent markets, develop service-based models, and ultimately look to maintain the “Earth’s biggest selection.”
- John D. Rockefeller saw an opportunity to dominate the oil industry by controlling railroads across the United States, making it difficult for their competition to move oil. By focusing on transportation, they seized the middle. Afterward, Standard Oil successfully cornered 90% of oil production, processing, and marketing by leveraging its transportation position.
- Procter & Gamble’s Tide brand became synonymous with laundry detergent and grew to 41% of the U.S. market share. The brand diversified into other cleaning products, including liquid detergent, stain removal pens, wipes, and fabric spray from its central position.
Seizing the middle in any given scenario requires an entity to:
- Define the territory (chessboard) and the parties (pieces) involved.
- Determine the middle where the entity would gain the most significant advantage.
- Position the entity in the middle and force others out.
- Leverage the position to favor the entity’s position.
How to Misuse It
While it can often be helpful to control the middle, it’s not always the correct strategy. Organizations often look to the margins for profitability, and there is less risk involved.
Examine your personal and professional life for situations where seizing the middle might be valuable. Taking control of specific scenarios will provide you with more maneuverability. Consequently, an opponent will have fewer choices and a less favorable end game.
Where it Came From
In 1997, Emanuel Adler coined the term in his work, “Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics.” The concept’s origin stems from international relations, based on Constructivism which looks at goals, fears, threats, identities, culture, and other aspects of “social reality” as facts. Constructivists believe that reality is socially constructed, which leads to radical differences in world strategy from the dominant realist and liberalist paradigms. In this context, Constructivism seizes the middle ground between realist and liberal approaches as the pragmatist’s approach to social science.
What Are Mental Models?
Mental models are thinking tools that help guide and shape our perceptions of the world. They simplify complexity so we can understand life better, make decisions confidently, and solve problems.