Sun-Tzu and the Art of Business

Date: August 25, 2014

I had always wanted to read Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War – a classic piece of literature that, until recently, had yet to percolate to the top of my reading list. Having now completed it, I wish I’d read it long ago for the valuable lessons it contains on business strategy.

Certainly there are many parallels between the world of business and that of war. Consider that for many business leaders, the language of the military is commonly used to describe competition, selling and even organizational hierarchy. Phrases such as marching orders, field report and the occasional SNAFU permeate the vernacular of many companies.  While multiple schools of thought exist on how appropriate such a metaphor may be, I find it unlikely that it will be swiftly conquered.

As such, I’d like to reflect on some of the more poignant pieces of wisdom, as they relate to business, offered by Sun-Tzu. For those curious, the entire book can be read online at All reference numbers and quotations that you find in the following are drawn from this translation.

I.17:  “According as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one’s plans.” While it might be a bit of a stretch to say that Sun-Tzu foresaw Agile development, certainly the plan with which one goes to market (or battle) may no longer be relevant upon receiving real-time data. The ability to adapt quickly and in an orderly fashion can make the difference between success and failure – as well, maintaining the element of unpredictability in strategic execution can create challenges for the would-be competitive mimic. The point is later reinforced in VI.28: “Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”

II.5:  “Though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.” Here, the extremes of decision-making are underscored – both rashly proceeding without sufficient forethought and debating to the point that an opportunity is lost. I’m sure we all have experience with ideas or plans that lose their edge because of too much discussion and not enough action and while it is certainly true that Sun-Tzu is an advocate for deliberate calculations prior to engaging (see I.26), here he demonstrates that failure to act in a timely fashion poses significant risk as well.

III.12:15:  “There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army – 1. By commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey… 2. By attempting to govern an army in the same ways as he administers a kingdom… 3. By employing the officers of his army without discrimination…” To paraphrase all three, I would simply say, “Making decisions at the top without sufficient information of what’s happening at the bottom leads to disaster.” This scenario can happen all too readily in a modern corporate environment, wherein an overly complex organizational structure and/or a plethora or lack of communication channels can cloud or distort the information being received from those at the front line, who have the best information about market trends or what customers are looking for.  For Sun-Tzu, the solution was to identify the best possible generals and to allow them to make the battlefield decisions. I suspect an apt metaphor would be to empower the appropriate individuals across the organization with the necessary authority to act on information in real-time and not rely exclusively on headquarters for centralized decision-making.

III.18:  “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.”  Perhaps among his most famous quotes, here Sun-Tzu reminds us that knowledge of our own capabilities, be they of an army or of a company, are insufficient to guarantee success. For some, conducting an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats is the appropriate response; for others, detailing a competitive analysis as part of a corporate strategy is the best execution of this principle.  While the tactics vary, the overall strategy of knowing oneself and one’s enemies, and then using that knowledge to the best possible effect (as exemplified in I.21 through I.24), remains sound even today.