The Art of War

The following text is an abridged passage from my forthcoming book Corporate Citizen. In today’s episode our hero learns a thing or two about strategy.

Corporate citizen front cover

Standing in the shadows, I watch a merciless fight between two formidable enemies. One makes her moves swiftly and with great force, the other more carefully and with an eerie calm. As the end draws nearer, I try to guess the winner – but cannot. They are both seemingly in control and their positions refuse to reveal the outcome to my untrained eye. Suddenly the quick-moving contestant’s defenses are torn apart and she falls. I take a deep breath and wait for the finishing blow, but there is none. It’s already over. Slowly moving into the light I make way towards the battlefield.

As she puts the pieces back on the board, the winner looks up and greets me with a smile. “Would you like to try?” I clear my throat and try to speak, but no words come out. Instead, I just nod and sit down. We play for hours, changing turns to make the first move, but it makes no difference – she defeats me easily every time. Sometimes it feels like I get the upper hand, yet it is clearly an illusion. When our last game begins, she grabs my hand as I reach for a pawn to move forward. “Where will the game end?” she asks me in a serious tone. “I have no idea – we haven’t even started yet”. “That,” she says, “is the first reason why you will not defeat me. You don’t have a strategy for where to finish the game, and therefore you cannot know the best tactics to go there.”

After some time thinking about what she just said, I once more reach for a pawn to make my first move. Again, she grabs my hand. “What is the most important area for you to protect?” she asks. Again, I admit that I do not know.  “That”, she says, “is the second reason why you will not defeat me. Without a strategy for defense, your opponent will strike and there will be no tactics in place to save that which is most important to you.”

Getting slightly annoyed at this lecturing, I look at the board and determine the place where I want to win and decide for an area where to protect my king. And then I reach for my piece to move. It’s not really a surprise when she grabs my hand this time. “Even though you now understand two key components of strategic thinking, there are two more to consider. Since you do not know anything about my plans, you must establish control to make it harder to execute a competing strategy. Finally, the fourth cornerstone is to set the strategy for where to attack first to support the other three strategies. Only when you have decided on these four things should you make the first move.”

Strategy model

The next time I select a piece to move, she does not stop me. And for the first time, the game is not about moving pieces around on instinct or reacting to threats – it’s about employing the tactics that support my strategy for winning. I’ve gone from knowing how the pieces move to understand where I should direct them. Nevertheless, she beats me thoroughly. While unable to stop her from taking me out, I survived much longer and lost with a sense of pride.Quote from the art of war

Stepping back into the shadows, I know that what I just learned is much more than how to play a good game of chess. I’ve been given a strategic model to help me move towards any goal. All by following a simple protocol:

 Decide where to win. Know what to defend. Establish control. Focus on your next attack. Then move.

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10 comments on “The Art of War
  1. adamchap says:

    Curious question – why are a lot of business metaphors always based around armies. Attacking the enemy; “War Rooms” for competitive bids; sending in the troops, etc? In order to change the mindset in business to being productive, should we change the language to being more of a farmer/grower’s language?

    Seeds and sets; planting and nurturing; growing, fertilising, intercropping; removing pests; harvesting – leaving enough in the ground so it grows well in the next year… isn’t that better language to be using?

    • Bjorn Bjorn says:

      Interesting observation, and very true. The power of metaphor is that we see things from different perspectives, and while war is often a good metaphor it offers only one view — and as all metaphors, distorts the picture at some point. Being a farmer myself, I obviously think your example is great. It also reminded me of one of my favorite books, Images of Organization by Gareth Morgan. I’ve just added it to our Cortex City store that opened just minutes ago.

      • adamchap says:

        The war metaphor even goes into job titles. “Chief”, “Officers” this and that. Perhaps we should then, rather than use one set of metaphors – war like or otherwise – implement a type of De Bono’s ‘Thinking Hats’ and when we talk of ‘combatting the enemy’ we should also think of another metaphor. It might just open up new opportunities.

        • Bjorn Bjorn says:

          It is also reflected in the hierarchical models of most companies, which is how you used to run an army back in the day — traditional command and control. Here at Cortex City we clearly borrow from the metaphor of a city, but it should be duly noted that we jump madly between metaphors that we find useful.

          • adamchap says:

            On hierarchies – which would probably make an interesting article for Cortex City – I know we live in an era of supposedly ‘flat’ hierarchies. But do we really? Are the hierarchies still there and more hidden behind the scenes and we call that a flat structure? More investigation and discussion is needed on this topic, it fascinates me.

  2. Ling says:

    Love this. I am curious though, if you have to conceal your tactics all the way to winning, how do you get your army with you? Especially if they are new and don’t trust you yet?

    • Bjorn Bjorn says:

      Excellent question! My leadership philosophy is to be as transparent as possible about strategies and tactics. That will maximize everyone’s chances to contribute positively, and builds a culture of openness and trust. There might be certain strategies that cannot be disclosed to all “soldiers”, but in that case you need either a strong trust or a strong vision to serve as a guiding star.

    • adamchap says:

      Ling, isn’t it what we as marketers have to do with prospects also? They don’t trust us (yet), and we have to bring them along with us.

      How do we demonstrate to our ‘army’ they should follow us? Same as for prospects. We should use case studies, quotes from previous successes, demonstrate our track record and make a bold vision that inspires and enthuses people to want to follow us based on that vision.

  3. Dan says:

    So well said!

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