The Art of Alliances

One of the main mistakes that new chess players make is to bring their queen out too early. The queen is the most powerful piece: she can move the farthest, in the most directions. A well-positioned queen can easily win games against unsuspecting opponents, especially novices. But more advanced play will punish the player who brings out their queen too early. Carefully-developed pawns and knights chase the queen, whose owner has to waste moves managing her safety.

It takes humility to realize that in higher levels of play, the queen can’t win alone. An alliance between a pawn, a rook, and a knight can be far more effective than one queen, or even a queen with one other piece.

Many of us have made similar mistakes at work. We are over reliant on our skills, thinking we can do it all ourselves. But successfully accomplishing our most important goals will require collaboration. It will require alliances.

This post contains some of the best practices I’ve discovered in developing my own skill in the art of alliances.

Samo Burja’s work is at the foundation of my thinking about alliances. Samo says that in adversarial, competitive landscapes, the best strategy is to “focus energy on building out cooperative [alliances]. In the long run, acquiring power and empowering others is mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive.”

This article alludes to many of the concepts from Empire Theory, one of Samo’s conceptual models. If you’re not already familiar with Empire Theory, you should read this blog post before continuing. I’ve also found it useful to develop a methodology around visualizing hierarchical power structures, which I call Burja Mapping.

Within Empire Theory, Samo makes an important distinction between narrow and broad alliances:

Two players can cooperate in one domain while battling in a different domain. I call this a narrow alliance. When two players are coordinating to achieve most of their goals and no longer contest one another, I call it a broad alliance. Narrow alliances are the default between most players in an empire, whereas broad alliances are unusual.

Broad alliances are unusual, but are extremely high leverage.

Three Places To Find Allies

There are three places where allies can be located within your landscape of power: allies within your organization, allies within another organization, and allies who are independent actors. Each of these kinds of alliances require careful consideration and the right approach.

Within your own empire, you want to identify who your allies are and build broad alliances. Specific projects will have allies who are more or less useful. There may also be enemies to avoid. But some people will be helpful in many contexts within that organization, and you will want to cultivate broad alliances with them. With the alliance secure, you want to focus on empowering them. In particular, the best strategy is to help them to cultivate their owned power, in particular their knowledge, skills, and relationships. This can require creative thinking but pays off tremendously in the long run. The more powerful your allies are, the more powerful you are.

If you want to collaborate with another organization, know that you are “Out”. Their leader or leaders are “High.” Initially, it seemed to me that I should ally with the High player in a given empire. They are, after all, usually the founder of the relevant organization, and tend to be the public face of that organization, as well.

While this is the obvious strategy, it is not the most effective one. High tends to move slow, as a bottleneck – like the king in chess, they move slow but are the “point” of the game. There is usually a “queen,” a Mid player who can move fast and get things done. (Somewhat confusingly, I’m making a different point here than the one made at the beginning of the post, which also used a chess queen as a metaphor. Sorry.)

King and Queen by Randy Pagatpatan

This player has a mix of borrowed and owned power, and is a live player. They are actively seeking new opportunities and inputs, which can help them achieve their own goals as well as the goals of their larger organization. In competitive environments, this relationship can be “tense, because it is risky for mid players to interact with outside players.” But I’ve found that in cooperative environments these are the most rewarding relationships to identify and build.

You may also wish to coordinate as an individual actor with other individual actors, irrespective of the hierarchies / empires they are part of. Here, Empire Theory is not the best lens for orientation – networks are.

For example, I got together with one of my broad allies, and we listed all of our respective allies, as well as the relationships between those allies. We used the visualization tool Kumu to make these maps. Here’s what they looked like:

One of the black circles is me, and the other is my ally. The dark grey circles are our respective allies, and the lighter, larger grey circles are organizations that are in our landscape of power. This means that between us, we have almost fifty allies in more than ten organizations.

There were many allies within our map, with different contexts, roles, and goals – but we were connected with all of them, directly or indirectly. The main question I found myself asking about this map was, how can I increase the number and quality of these connections?

There are three ways to deepen connections within your network:

  1. Add node-to-node connections within your network. You may already be connected to Alice and Bob, but Alice and Bob might not already be connected to each other. Look for opportunities to introduce your allies to each other in ways that are mutually beneficial. Be sure to use double opt-in introductions by default.
  2. Deepen node-to-node connections within people who are already in your network. Find new ways to connect and collaborate. What projects or opportunities would be useful to cultivate the relationships that are already present?
  3. Connect new people to your network. Do you know any people who you are not currently allied with, but might be? Do you know anyone who might know others who would benefit from being connected to your network?

With each of these methods, the higher goal is to serve the network. Ideally, each individual actor benefits, but also the larger community.

Best Practices for All Alliances

First and foremost, know who your allies are, and be sure that they know you are their ally. Be explicit and even formal about your alliance. Develop the skill of alliances within the relationship.

Having bidirectional situational awareness is critical. Know what they’re working on currently (current projects and responsibilities) and why (goals + vision).

First, this situational awareness of their work lets you focus more intensely on your own work.

You know that they have their topic/project area covered, and you have yours. For example, ideally i’ve got the “meditation” and “monastery” thing covered for my allies. Then they can focus on their work, and we can both look for ways to help each other and ideally the broader network. More broadly, situational awareness creates the conditions for good consequences.

Relatedly, steer towards projects and directions that benefit more of your allies. This may not be obvious to other involved players, but you need to take a long vision here.

Fast information flow is important. Constantly be asking yourself, “Who needs this information right now?” and get that information to them as soon as possible. You may need to use back channels or private 1-1 conversations for relaying this information. More generally, the Westrum Typology provides a useful model for thinking about healthy information flow within and outside of organizations.

Learn from your allies. Ask about their work, and their best practices. Ask about open questions you have or challenges you’re facing. Share what you have to offer in terms of skill, knowledge, and resources.

In my experience, a really good alliance often feels like each side is getting the better deal. You have to check in periodically, asking, “Wait, are you sure this is really good for you, too?” Knowing why they’re doing what they’re doing is key to not feeling guilty about your relationship.

Ultimately, love your allies. They are whole people, with strengths and weaknesses, big goals and banal problems. (You are too.) Be there for them when they need you, even if it’s hard or uncomfortable or socially risky. Love your allies! This is just good person-ing.

Who do you have a broad alliance with? How can you deepen that relationship? How can you develop more broad alliances? How can you connect your broad alliances, so they are mutually supportive?

with love to my present and future allies,


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