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The art of war and the art of management.

According to many historians, Sun Tzu wrote his classic essay, The Art of War, sometime during the period between 500 B.C. and 200 B.C. Since that time, his text has been translated into Japanese, French, English, Russian and Spanish, to mention just a few. It provides insights that can help one overcome both personal and professional obstacles. Tzu divides the obstacles into four categories: intra-personal, inter-personal, environmental and organizational.

In a recent translation by R.L. Wing, The Art of Strategy, published by Dolphin Books, a slightly different interpretation was placed on the Chinese character, bing, used by Tzu as war. The character can mean different things, in particular, the character can be interpreted, according to Wing, as war, military, tactic, combat, battle, maneuver, weapon, conflict, strategy and so on. It is the latter interpretation, strategy, that will generally be of greatest interest to managers, and it is that interpretation that is used in this article to outline how management obstacles may be overcome through strategy, as adopted from the writings of Sun Tzu.

Sun Tzu's text was written as 13 chapters or topics, and consists of less than 6,000 words. Each chapter deals with a specific step in overcoming obstacles, from the analysis to the attack or presentation. Because of its shortness, the text can be read in a matter of a few hours, but a manager may wish to absorb the material much more slowly, reading and re-reading sections to fully appreciate the concepts.

It was the belief of Sun Tzu that before one entered into a confrontational situation a complete analysis of the situation was required. In the management context, such analyses should focus on an individual's strengths and weaknesses, the goals of the organization and how they mesh with those of the company, the marketplace and society itself, as well as how the goals are viewed and supported by the members of the organization, and how the objectives match one's integrity. Sun Tzu also believed in the masking of one's intentions, so the element of surprise was in one's favor, once the analysis was complete. In Sun Tzu's words:

When complete, they appear to prepare. When forceful, they appear evasive. When angry, they appear to submit. When proud, they appear to be humble. When comfortable, they appear to toil. When attached, they appear separated. They attack when the opponent is unprepared. And appear where least expected.

The same planning and control are necessary in industry today, where the ability of an organization to announce a new product and/or technology may provide a significant revenue impact for several months. As a result, corporations keep close tabs on any information available concerning new products, product enhancements or new technology advances.

An organization represents both a personal and corporate culture for most. Thus, the manager must understand the cost, in time, money and emotional energy, prior to challenging another organization. The challenge may be for territory, staffing or new product lines. An idea of Sun Tzu's was that good leaders should not be destructive in their efforts, but instead they should attempt to re-direct the efforts of their opponents in such a manner as to be supportive of the leader's ultimate goal. In the case of conflicts or competitions between organizations and/or objectives, careful planning is necessary to win the decision, and at the same time not alienate others.

A principle aim of management should be in gaining a given objective with as little wasted effort as possible. For instance, good managers will not interfere with the efforts of those people specially trained and charged with accomplishing the planned tasks. The introduction of unrealistic goals, bureaucratic policies or unprepared team leaders will lead to wasted effort for most projects and even failure for many. As in the planning of the organizational objectives, knowledge of the environment is essential for success. Although Sun Tzu's words relate to elements of war some 2,300 years ago, they can be placed into modern terminology, where the areas of knowledge required for success may be defined as market and user requirements, product technology, product usability, the environment in which it must survive, and so forth. Such knowledge provides the edge needed for successful managers. In the words of Sun Tzu:

Thus, it is said; Know the other and know yourself; One hundred challenges without danger; Know not the other and yet know yourself; One triumph for one defeat; Know not the other and know not yourself; Every challenge is certain peril.

A product often used as an example of what not to do is the Ford Motor Co. Edsel. A more recent example of not providing the product required by the marketplace is the Sony Betamax VCR. Size, recording time, and, most importantly, standardization of the industry and public sectors to VHS spelled doom for the Sony effort. The need to understand market requirements cannot be overstated. That understanding includes needs, user perceptions, technologies and competitive offerings.

Managers who can position their organizations appropriately can often be assured of victory in organizational competition. The key to success is recognizing the overall goals and objectives of the parent organization and then assuring departmental goals are in keeping with the larger set. A department that provides successful products and receives good customer commentary will be far more successful than one that does not. It is not suggested that following company line, ignoring risk taking or waiting on someone else to lead the way are correct interpretations of Sun Tzu's commentary. It is more correct to say that one must position themselves, or their organization, such that the goals are common. There may be risk in achieving them, but the risk is understood.

A problem that occurs in working toward new goals or products is that most people resist change. Over time, they permit change to take place, but they do so only gradually, almost imperceptibly, bringing to mind the oft quoted phrase, "evolution, not revolution." One has a choice of developing 20 years of experience, or one year 20 times.

Another key, according to Sun Tzu, is the ability of the manager to be prepared for quick action and to create an illusion of the real intent, causing the others to prepare in areas that are not intended to be the projected area of competition. If one can get the opposition to spend effort in preparing defenses against a multitude of possibilities, and yet continue to camouflage the real area of interest, then the defense at the point of actual competition will be weaker than it may otherwise have been.

Even the best strategy must be capable of real-time modification to take advantage of the situation. Leaders must be able to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their positions as well as that of the opposition. It is through understanding of the immediate situation, and modification of the base strategy, that the competition can be resolved in favor of the one who is able to rise to the challenge. It is particularly interesting to note that Sun Tzu supports the ignoring of orders from those that are remote from the actual arena -- "There are Ruler's orders that should not be accepted." There are too many examples of failure when a manager builds a team of "yes" subordinates, of staffing with people that have learned to tell the boss what he wants to hear, rather than what he needs to hear. The cautionary note is that once all the true discussion has been completed and a consensus has been reached, that decision must be supported as if it were the manager's own. There is very little that will destroy an organization or ruin a project more quickly than passing the responsibility to some mythical "they."

According to Sun Tzu, the manager's ability to recognize and act appropriately, i.e. protect the team and its resources at all times, is critical for success in any strategy. According to Tzu, the bases of defeat come from six basic causes:

* Lack of team strength; * A strong team but weak leaders; * Strong team leaders but a weak team; * Indisciplined team leaders; * Unprincipled team leaders and team members; and * The lack of strategic focus.

In keeping with the emphasis on avoiding confrontation, Sun Tzu believed that if, and only if, confrontation must be direct, then it must be concluded as quickly and humanely as possible. The test of leadership is to understand and select the tactical position that can most quickly end the confrontation before the opponent, and possibly their own force, has been destroyed. This ability is reflected in Sun Tzu's words:

Intensity can cycle back to fondness. Anger can cycle back to satisfaction. But an extinct organization cannot cycle back to survival. And those who are destroyed cannot cycle back to life.

It seems that the primary contribution in Sun Tzu's writings to the success of any leader is in the avoidance of conflict. However, when conflict cannot be avoided, an essential element to success is knowledge of oneself, one's team, the opposition and the rules that surround the environment in which the conflict or competition must be resolved.

Words written 2,300 years ago, yet they have common sense application in the business world today. A successful manager may already be using Sun Tzu's concepts without knowing it -- they do make sense. Take time to read The Art of War -- there may be much more there to take advantage of in building for future successes.

Raymond E. Floyd is vice president of engineering for Innovative Insights Inc., Conover, N.C. Floyd was previously associated with IBM for 26 years. He has his B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering and is working on his Ph.D. in engineering.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Management Strategy
Author:Floyd, Raymond E.
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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