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LONDON—When we think of The Art of War we think of a dusty, old, impregnable tome pored over by tweed-clad old men in dusty drawing rooms. Maybe it’s an accurate stereotype, but I don’t think it should be.
The Art of War has a mythical reputation for good reason. It’s defined military thinking for the last two and a half millennia and more recently informed people in fields like sport and business. There are only a handful of books that are as responsible for shaping our world and way of life, whoever we are.
This book is about strategy. Good strategy is clear and simple. Your Gran, or a five-year-old should get it. Whenever I’m struggling to cut down and simplify, I like to remind myself that General Montgomery’s plan for the D-Day landings easily fits on less than a page of A4. That was the largest seaborne invasion in history. The stakes were probably higher than positioning a financial services brand or selling cat food to urban mums.
The Art of War is also short. More of a booklet than a saga. My copy has just 260 pages, thirteen chapters, and what appears to be thirteen lessons. Everyone will have their own interpretation, but I’d like to share mine in the hope they might go some way to helping us in winning the wars we’re fighting, not just the battles.
1. Laying plans – 始計
Chapter one is about whether to fight or not.
Tzu writes about five factors that help us decide. Motivation, atmospheric and geographic conditions, leadership, and the organizational discipline feature here.
These factors help us calculate the likelihood of victory.
The lesson? The likelihood of success can (and should) be calculated before you start.
Strategy is about understanding the lay of the land, the context, market, world, customer, and competition – before any moves are made. If we’re not reasonably sure an action is going to be effective, we shouldn’t take it.
This is Abraham Lincoln spending 55 minutes of the hour sharpening the axe, it’s the British military’s 7P’s, it’s even the McCann 5C’s. Don’t just jump in.
2. Waging war – 作戰)
Chapter two is about the economy of warfare.
Success requires winning decisive engagements quickly and limiting cost. In more ways than one, war is expensive – a good leader must strike a balance, making sure the whatever is gained outweighs what is lost.
The lesson? The benefit must be greater than the cost.
Step one is to establish what we’re aiming at. Step two is to decide if it’s worth it. This is true in any strategic business decision. Marketing and war both have an ROI.
If you want to sell more Coca Cola, an award-winning Super Bowl spot may cost millions and not be effective. Investment could be better spent on distribution and availability. However, if you want people to subconsciously associate Coca Cola with American sports events, the big splash on Super Bowl Sunday makes more sense.
A strategic victory is all about minimum investment, maximum benefit – anything that tips the scales the other way is best re-thought.
3. Attack by stratagem – 謀攻
Chapter three is about the presence of mind.
We learn that it’s better to capture than to destroy and that ideally, excellence is found in breaking the enemy’s resistance without even fighting. Attacking by stratagem often means not having to fight at all.
The lesson? Keep a cool head.
It’s a tricky concept for us emotionally driven human beings to learn – but the best fighters never get in fights.
Are you reacting? Are you getting yourself into a position you need to fight yourself out of? Keeping a cool head and looking long term is a subtle, and rare skill.
Warren Buffett sums it up well. When asked about what he looks for in an investor, he replied; “the ability to sit on their hands and do nothing”. Worth remembering.
4. Tactical dispositions – 軍形
Chapter four is about winning – and winning easily.
Good fighters first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat and then wait for the opportunity to defeat the enemy. ‘To secure himself from defeat lies in his own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.’
What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins but excels in winning with ease.
The lesson? Get your house in order before looking outwards.
The security of your own position is the most important thing and must be established first. Action is a privilege that must be earned.
We often watch brands that are responsible for their own demise. They don’t continually assess and sure up their position, then they overstretch or fail to react – sometimes fatally.
5. Use of energy – 兵勢
Chapter five is about the proper application of effort.
Creativity and timing can and should be used to build momentum. “When a commander utilizes combined energy, his fighting men become as it were like unto rolling logs or stones.”
Great results can be achieved from small forces, applied effectively.
The lesson? Strategic application of force is more important than the force itself.
Have you ever struggled to remove a bolt with your hands, only to find it takes the slightest effort to do so when you eventually find a wrench?
The marketing industry loves to throw money at things that aren’t effective – effort is often applied wastefully. With a bit of thought and some self-awareness – huge strides can be made towards effectiveness.
Establish where your effort can be most effective. Start there.
6. Weak points and strong – 虛實
Chapter six is about the initiative.
Opportunities come from openings in the environment and the relative weakness of the enemy. This chapter focuses on how to respond to changes in a fluid battlefield.
Tzu writes about taking the initiative. A clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.
The lesson? Play to your strengths, and the competition’s weaknesses.
No business is ‘all things to all men’. It’s never wasted effort to establish what you’re good at, and importantly – what you aren’t. In strategy we talk about our strengths, but rarely our weaknesses – even though they’re just as important.
Understand your strengths and weaknesses, and those of your competition.
7. Manoeuvring an army – 軍爭
Chapter seven is about movement and manoeuvering.
Tzu warns against the unnecessary manoeuvering of your own forces, but the benefit of unnecessarily moving the enemy. Of fighting when your own spirit is high, and the enemy spirit low. The enemy’s loss is your gain – and vice versa.
The lesson? Act with purpose.
All action should have a definable benefit somewhere. It may be immediate like sales, or an investment in the future, like brand.
Marketing has an epidemic of meaningless meandering with no navigation. Any action should have a purpose, clearly established from the outset. It saves a shocking amount of time, money, and morale.
Keep on course, or at least make sure you’ve set one.
8. Variation of tactics – 九變
Chapter eight is about flexibility.
Tzu writes about roads that should not be followed, forces not engaged, towns not besieged, positions not to be contested and orders that should not be obeyed – and about the five pitfalls of a leader that causes them to fall into these traps.
The lesson? What we don’t do, is as important as what we do.
We don’t usually focus on the value of inaction. Not all opportunities are to be taken, and the presence of mind to take a step back to assess the situation and decide whether it’s prudent to act is a vital skill of a strategist.
Most businesses are set up with a default for action; hitting targets and getting things ‘out of the door’ – we need to make money. But at what cost? Probably more often than we’d tell our clients, the best option is to do nothing.
We need to be able to balance billing, with good strategic counsel.
9. The army on the march – 行軍
Chapter nine is about understanding what motivates your enemy.
Knowledge of geographical situations like rivers, mountains, marshes, deserts, high and low ground, light and dark conditions is vital. But we sometimes overlook the value of judging the intentions of the enemy in said conditions.
If the enemy tries to provoke, they want you to attack, if an enemy is close at hand but silent, then in a strong position, if in a seemingly vulnerable one, then perhaps setting a trap.
Tzu even goes into granular detail like, “if those who are sent to draw water begin by drinking themselves, the army is suffering from thirst.”
The lesson? Look past the what to the why.
A routine part of strategy is competitor audits and market views – we establish what the competition is doing, but we rarely try to work out the more important answer – why?
If we’re doing our jobs well, we should be trying to reverse engineer the strategy of rivals. We should be verging on corporate espionage. Let’s not forget, this is information so valuable you can go to prison for stealing it.
Spot the signs of why a rival is behaving as they are, predict their next move, adjust yours accordingly.
10. Classification of terrain – 地形
Chapter ten is about terrain.
Tzu writes that the best ally to an army is the natural formation of the country, along with the seasons and the will of the army to fight in them.
Han dynasty scholar, Li Ch`uan, sums up as follows; “given knowledge of three things – the affairs of men, the seasons of heaven and the natural advantages of earth – victory will invariably crown your battles.”
The lesson? Knowledge is power.
Market research is to understand the terrain our brands and businesses are fighting in. Cultural and market shifts are the passing seasons, and the will of the army to fight is the will of the business.
The more you know about your market, the shifts within it, and your business, the more informed decisions you can make. Understand your terrain and benefit from it.
11. The nine situations – 九地
Chapter eleven is about reacting to a situation.
There are nine situations that an army may find itself in. Not just landscapes, but a situation where all things considered. Tzu lists; (1) dispersive ground, (2) facile ground, (3) contentious ground, (4) open ground, (5) ground of intersecting highways, (6) serious ground, (7) difficult ground, (8) hemmed in-ground, (9) desperate ground.
He writes that the situation must dictate the strategy. The correct action is not always the most obvious, or even seemingly the most decisive one.
The lesson? Adapt your strategy to the situation, not the other way around.
How many of us have got carried away and excited with a great idea, because it’s just that – neglecting the fact that it’s not right for the situation? We get excited about our next world-changing plan, and then force that round peg into a square hole.
In strategy, we must love ideas, but we must also remember to take ourselves out of the equation. It’s a commercial business, and what we do needs to be effective first, everything else second.
12. Attack by fire – 火攻
Chapter twelve is about advantage.
Although Tzu writes about the use of fire, this chapter is about more than just burning things. Fire as used as a proxy for advantage. Tzu emphasizes that the means to form such an attack should always be kept available, even If never used.
Not having a decisive option when the time comes is like reaching for your sword and it not being there.
The lesson? Maintain your advantage, even if you don’t use it.
Humans are remarkably bad at understanding the advantages of pre-emptive advantage. Whether a nuclear deterrent to a car seatbelt – there is value in things that we’ll hopefully never have to use.
These advantages are the easiest to cut in times of budgeting, and it’s tricky to explain to long lists of stakeholders and unengaged middle managers the value of something they can’t see.
In downturns, businesses often neuter their advantage of motivated staff by cutting seemingly innocuous budgets like a Friday evening bar tab, or a biscuit budget.
These are often the first domino to fall that knocks down the larger ones.
13. Use of spies – 用間
Chapter thirteen is about insight.
This is one of the most important concepts in the book – ‘foreknowledge’, and the use of spies to gain it.
Tzu writes about five types of spies, being local, inward, converted, doomed, and surviving – all providing different types of information. He writes about the subtle use of spies and information, stating that there is value in both knowledge of the enemy, and – importantly – the ability to misdirect that enemy’s knowledge of you.
Spies are such a vital subject in The Art of War that Han scholar Chia Lin refers to an ‘army without spies’ as ‘a man without eyes and ears.’
The lesson? When it comes to information, quality is always greater than quantity.
In marketing, we talk at length about the value of insight. Insight is the next step on from information – it’s a specific piece of information that opens a door that can be used to strategic advantage.
Insight focuses on quality, not quantity – it might be one subtle thing that changes everything and can go on to define a brief, a company, a category, or an industry.
Strong strategists tirelessly hunt for these key bits of information that unlock the way forward. That’s the job – and the value we bring.
As we seek new answers to tough challenges, remember the power of ancient wisdom
The thirteen chapters in The Art of War have shaped the world in more ways than we could possibly imagine. The book provides thirteen timeless lessons that can help us all make better decisions, develop better strategies; and whatever our war is – go some way to winning it.
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