On Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu is familiar to most of us over 25 years of age who have been in and around business. A General in ancient China, he is credited as authoring “The Art of War”.
Reading through some information the other day, I came across a quote of his which is eminently applicable to our modern approach to business (and possibly, life):
Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory:
1 He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight;
2 He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces;
3 He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks;
4 He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared;
5 He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.
Reflecting on the passage, it became obvious that, in our busy lives, we can often forget that patience and culture can count for a hell of a lot when addressing the challenges we face.
Breaking down the components of the quote, the application to your business may well be seen as follows:
He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight
A bit like picking your battles – there are some times when opportunities in business arise and you’re just not prepared to take them. Or, you decide to take them but risk the whole operation in pursuit of the new goal.
There are always three options available when opportunities or challenges present themselves:
- Take it;
- Actively retreat from it; or
- Do nothing.
Where you determine your course of action, it is essential that you marshal your resources to give yourself the greatest chance of success. If you don’t have the requisite resources (people, financial, fixed assets), then unless you can get hold of them in a hurry, the chance of a successful expansion are significantly lessened. I have often seen businesses who lurch into a new area or operation or activity that offers great potential but they go too early.
Taking the opportunity is the “easiest” course of action, however you need to consider fully the impact that this will have on your existing business and its resources. Effective planning and implementation around this needs to occur to ensure that you don’t kill the golden goose.
Actively retreating from the opportunity can be a very powerful but less intuitive approach. How do you do this? You might (for example), pass the opportunity off to a more appropriately resourced competitor who can exploit it. They can take it on, and you can gain some flow of profit share by structuring the deal effectively. This helps to ensure that you gain something from the opportunity rather than nothing. There are many possible ways of doing this – they are somewhat limited only by your imagination! It can often be a very powerful approach to maximise your returns whilst limiting your potential downside.
On numerous occasions over the years, I have suggested to customers that they don’t pursue an opportunity because they simply don’t have the capacity to take on the extra business and/or they are not positioned to undertake the development required to fully exploit the opportunity. The “do nothing” option is always alive. People often feel the need to “do something” and then rationalise it afterwards. This can lead to very adverse outcomes as they will lurch forward without proper assessment and planning.
He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces
Working out the strengths and weaknesses of your team are vital to enabling you to make better judgments and more strategically utilise the strengths you have. I have often heard the argument “but we’re too small”. They may well perceive themselves as being too small, however the strength that comes from being small is agility and responsiveness.
Playing to your strengths can be a very powerful tool – along with playing on your preferred “patch”. The David and Goliath story is a great metaphor in this regard. By understanding your strengths and your opponents weaknesses, you are better able to play a game that will result in victory. In many senses, the sheer size of a larger competitor can be a weakness as they are generally slower to react and marshal their resources to deliver a competitive response in time. Their size actually conspires against them.
Playing to your strengths rather than trying to mitigate your weaknesses is a more positive and effective approach. By trying to deal with your weaknesses, you will actually reduce the capacity of your strengths. Marcus Buckingham has put it exceedingly well in this video.
He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks
Drucker wrote: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.
Where your culture is one which encourages and supports the growth and development of your people, you will have a business that is going to be far more effective and resilient than your competitors who have better technology or products but a disengaged workforce.
I have written much previously on the impact of positive and negative culture and encourage you to review the posts on this topic.
The video of Marcus Buckingham as linked above touches on this subject and you can see the effect of great cultures in some of the leading organisations today – Southwest Airlines, Disneyland and so on.
It comes down, at its essence, to trust. If you provide your people with the tools and support to do their job then trust them to do it, they will perform far more effectively than where you “sit on them” and micro-manage them.
Are you adopting the most effective approach in managing your team?
He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared
Again, waiting for the opportune time rather than rushing into the fray can be a very powerful strategy.
Time is only a measure that we have invented – the real value in knowing your own team and knowing your competition is that you are better placed to exploit the opportunities that arise at a time that suits you. If you progress forward at a time that suits them, you’re not giving your business the best chance of success.
Reacting to situations is a function of this. By not feeling that you need to react to situations gives you the power to respond appropriately at a time of your own choosing. This can give you a massive strategic advantage.
He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign
Depending on the style of the leader of your organisation, they might or might not be the most qualified or appropriate person to lead new program delivery/opportunity exploitation.
Often times, the leader might feel they need to be at the front of the queue to deliver the strategy or implement the program. This can be very demotivating to the team who has developed the strategy. It can be seen as the leader taking all the glory.
Best to let the person/team who has developed the opportunity to run with it rather than come in at the last minute and usurp their role. Chances are, they will be far better informed and capable than some “johnny come lately” who is seeking glory.
For a leader to swan in and try and deliver something they are not fully briefed on can be incredibly dangerous. They will often miss vital parts of the puzzle or make the wrong moves/decisions/communications that end up derailing the project.
Sun Tzu may have detailed his thinking some 2,500 years ago, but it is highly relevant and applicable today.