7 Powerful Lessons Sun Tzu can teach you about Strategy

The world has gotten much smaller with the birth of social networks, social bookmarking websites, search engines, email and other communication mediums.   Furthermore consumers are constantly bombarded with marketing and advertising messages from every direction from companies competing for their attention.

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Having a well founded strategy is necessary to win the battle for your customer’s attention, and win the war within your respective marketplace.

I am a big fan of studying history and the great leaders, philosophers and strategists of the past. One influential figure that I have written about in the past in my “Lesson on Communication” post was military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu.

Sun Tzu was a Chinese general and philosopher who lived over 2,000 years ago and is most known for writing the Art of War.  Sun Tzu often wrote about the importance of strategy and the wisdom that he shared is still extremely applicable today whether you’re referring to business, sports, or military endeavors.

In regards to business, too many times people focus on tactics without having a proper overall strategy in place.  Utilizing SEO, Social Media, or blogging are all tactics.   These tactics can be extremely valuable when in the hands of the right craftsman, but not so effective without an overall strategy behind them.

This brings us to Sun Tzu’s First Strategy Lesson…

Sun Tzu Strategy Lesson One

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Before thinking – How can my business use Facebook, or “X popular social network” (or any tactic for that matter) take a step back and ensure that your overall strategy is defined.   Do you know how you plan on winning in your respective marketplace?  There are two fundamental strategies to consider – low cost or differentiation (Niche).

Low cost is self explanatory and is the strategy utilized by companies like Walmart or Southwest.  If this is your strategy every tactic you utilize, or move that you make, should fall in line with increasing your customer volume and decreasing your costs.

This could involve tactics like:

  • Developing systems to streamline operations
  • Harnessing the power of economies of scale (buying in volume)
  • Economies of scope (lowering costs by spreading risk across various product lines)
  • Lowering the cost of acquiring a new customer through conversion optimization

Typically a low cost strategy is focused on reaching customers that are more broad in nature.

A differentiation strategy focuses around meeting a specific market’s needs well.  Typically if you are able to develop a true competitive advantage that clearly differentiates you from your competitors, or alternative solutions in your respective marketplace your prospects will often be willing to pay a premium for your offering.

Differentiation and developing a sustainable competitive advantage is the goal of many firms, but it isn’t easy.

A fundamental foundation of strategy is research.  After all, how can you form a strategy without being informed?

This brings us to Sun Tzu strategy lesson two.

Sun Tzu Lesson Two

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles”

This lesson essentially focuses on understanding your strengths and weaknesses as well as those of your competitors.  The full Sun Tzu quote is actually…“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”

Start by thoroughly understanding the strengths and weaknesses of both you and your key competitors.  Consider conducting a SWOT analysis to assist you with this endeavor.

In a SWOT analysis, outside of strengths and weaknesses there are also opportunities and threats.  Opportunities and Threats are elements occurring outside of a particular company that could impact it.

To understand opportunities and threats you have to have a finger on the pulse of what is occurring in your industry.  This takes us to Sun Tzu strategy lesson number three.

Sun Tzu strategy lesson number three

“The natural formation of the country is the soldier’s best ally”

In this particular quote Sun Tzu is referencing the terrain, or landscape that one faces in battle. It is important for us to remember to become very accustomed to the landscape of our industry. We must also be aware of changes that occur in our industry that could impact our business. Change, or movement in your industry, can create opportunities or threats for you or your competitors. What changes could impact your industry? Here’s a few…

    • New laws or government regulations
    • Disruptive technologies
    • Changes in the budget of your customers
    • Social changes and movements

Some industries are more volatile than others, but eventually change will come. It all comes down to how prepared you are to take advantage of that change.

This brings us to Sun Tzu Strategy Lesson number four

Sun Tzu strategy lesson four

“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”

In this lesson Sun Tzu was expressing that those who prepare in advance by creating well founded plans are more likely to be successful. There are only 24 hours in a day and there are always excuses that can be made, but those who are truly successful have invested time into proper planning.

When planning, consider exploring a variety of tactical combinations based on what has worked in the past for you, others in your industry, or even other companies in different industries.

This brings us to Sun Tzu strategy lesson five…

Sun Tzu strategy lesson five

“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.”

Consider planning to utilize conversion optimization by conducting experiments in A/B testing and multi-variate testing. Plan to test different:

    • Headlines
    • Marketing messages
    • Page layouts
    • Images
    • Call to action buttons
    • Advertisements
    • Traffic Sources
    • Keywords
    • Etc

Sun Tzu believed in this concept so much that he went on to give additional examples…

“There are not more than five primary colours, yet in combination
they produce more hues than can ever been seen.”

“There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of
them yield more flavours than can ever be tasted.”

But in order to be successful relying solely on planning and strategy isn’t enough. Remember what Sun Tzu mentioned in lesson one…

“Strategy before tactics is the slowest route to victory”.

A well founded strategy is only as viable as the ability for a firm to execute and see it through.

Fundamentally, successful operations comes down to the correct thing happening at the right time.

This brings us to Sun Tzu’s Strategy lesson number six.

Sun Tzu strategy lesson number six

“The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.”

A decision to act only is going to be successful if the action is appropriate for the situation presented. Having a quality strategy is very important, but being able to recognize the moment to strike and execute various aspects of your strategy is a very important skill as well.

This takes practice and requires you to be attuned with what is occurring in your respective marketplace.

The good thing is that as you continue to practice and this valuable skill you’ll notice that the law of attraction will kick in. More and more opportunities will come your way.

This brings us to our final Sun Tzu lesson on strategy.

Sun Tzu strategy lesson seven

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”

Success breeds success.  One of my favorite books read in 2012 was “Thinking in Systems”  by Donella H. Meadows.  In her book she explains a system trap called “Success to Successful”.  Essentially this, from a systems thinking standpoint, is a flaw where those in a particular competitive environment acquire additional resources as a result of winning that helps them to further compete more effectively in the future.

For example: If a manufacturing firm wins a very large contract they will bring in additional revenue that could give them the opportunity to expand their manufacturing capabilities.  Through this expansion they are able to produce their products at a more economical rate and higher volume to win future jobs.

Think about how you, or your company can take advantage of the “Success to Successful” systems flaw and attract more opportunities and wins.

Through the “Success to Successful” concept more opportunities will continue to come your way. The key, as the great legendary Coach John Wooden said is to be balanced and prepared to recognize and take advantage of the various opportunities that come your way.

I hope that you’ve found these timeless Sun Tzu lessons to be helpful.

One final lesson that Sun Tzu mentioned, which may be the most important of all is that…

“You have to believe in yourself.”

What Sun Tzu lessons did you find to be the most impactful? Drop a comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Comments

  1. Abul Khair says:

    Hi David,
    You posted the article more than a year ago. Recently, I have completed the book and am looking at different websites to analyse the different views. I like the book. As it said, there is nothing under the sky. The book is useful in any way you take it. Be it personal or professional. I like the planning part.

  2. Sun Tzu is always fresh. Business is truly war. Your perspective is refreshing. Good work.

  3. I have been reading through the Art of War as well. His mastery and understanding of the environment and a battlefield are amazing. I also believe his teachings hold water is other areas, business specifically. However, I am curious where you got some of these quotes from. I search through the book and several of these quotes do not appear. I have researched them and some areas say they are misattributed to him. I was just curious if you had a specific reference I could use. As great as they are, I would be interesting in referencing the correct person for them.

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