Some of the world’s smartest technology companies may be a little bit too smart for their own good. Fueled by corporate leaders with big egos and a desire to develop and control new markets, companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft are increasingly treating their operations like a game of chess.

But is this really such a good thing? There’s a strong argument to be made that companies engaging in the type of calculated strategy required to win a game of chess actually risk doing very foolish things.

A good example of this comes in the form of Apple, which has launched a questionable lawsuit that clearly targets Google. A growing number of observers are starting to wonder if the company is becoming “preoccupied with zero-sum maneuvering versus hated rivals“. Indeed, it’s clear that Apple CEO Steve Jobs isn’t the biggest fan of Google, and some believe that the lawsuit is “nothing more than a manifestation of Jobs’s own sense of injustice“.

But is Apple’s patent lawsuit proxy war against Google really such a smart move? Apple may arguably be the world’s top mobile device company, but it recently announced a tablet device that left many disappointed. Which begs the question: when did Apple decide that its resources were better spent on litigation than innovation?

Apple isn’t alone. Google has lobbied against the competition, and its recent threat to pull out of China was clearly a business maneuver designed to change the game in China, one of the few countries it doesn’t dominate in search. Yet while Google has been focused on playing chess with competitors such as Apple and Microsoft, and with entire nations like China, it completely blew the launch of a major social networking initiative that it was clearly hoping would help keep it relevant in the social networking space as Facebook continues its rise. For its part, Microsoft is now engaged in an open effort to see that the same antitrust regulations it suffered from are used against its chief online rival, Google. Yet despite Microsoft’s gains with Bing, it’s unclear whether this effort will actually help Bing, or simply hurt Google.

So what’s the problem here? While three of the world’s most successful technology companies have been busy playing chess with each other, they have been ignoring customers. Perhaps correlation isn’t causation, but I think it’s obvious: customers usually benefit very little from the chess games companies play. Certainly, Apple’s resources are far better spent on product development than a ridiculous patent lawsuit. A little bit more focus on the basics instead of world domination would probably keep Google from tripping on its shoelaces. And Microsoft’s desire to do Google in will require greater innovation, not just a little help from antitrust regulators.

Obviously, nobody is going to argue that companies shouldn’t pay attention to the competition and seize opportunities to gain advantages over the competition, but companies should also be strategic about their strategies. Companies can be too smart for their own good, and it usually starts when “zero-sum maneuvering” becomes more important than the customer.

There are six questions corporate leadership should ask when developing strategy:

  • Are we acting logically?
  • Is this the most effective use of our resources?
  • Can this have a positive impact on our reputation?
  • Does this grow the market, or create new markets?
  • Are we creating value?
  • Will this benefit our customers?

If a company’s leadership can’t answer ‘yes‘ to all six of these questions, particularly the last two, leadership may want to consider that it’s being too smart for its own good. And that’s never a wise thing, as customers are increasingly learning the hard way.