Similiarly, Sun Tzu has also influenced business thinking. The book's popularity continues to grow as managers and leaders increasingly seek to apply its principles to their business challenges. The application of the Art of War to business is a not a difficult conceptual mapping. Maneuvering maps to agility. The use of spies maps to competitive intelligence. However, little has been written about the application of Sun Tzu specifically to innovation. Sun Tzu speaks more about working with what you have, as in the size of your army and the temperament of your troops, than he does about inventing more effective weapons that change the rules of engagement.
However, there are three stories in the commentary to Sun Tzu that contain terrific advice for innovators.
The first is a commentary by General Han Hsin (204 BC) who was forced to contest a much larger army from the province of Chao, which was heavily fortified. He devised a truly brilliant strategem. First, before the battle, he detached a light cavalry of 2000 men to hide until called, each furnished with a red flag. Next, he sent out a division consisting of 10,000 men, and ordered them to form in line of battle with their backs to the River Ti. Seeing this maneuver, the whole army of Chao broke into loud laughter, since this was ill-advised according to the treatise of Sun Tzu. General Han believed that the only way to lure the men of Chao to abandon their fortifications was if they felt victory was at hand, and they could see "the standard and drums of the commander-in-chief, and fear that I should escape."
And so, General Han himself rode into battle, displaying the general's flag and with drums beating, and was immediately engaged by the enemy. A great battle followed, lasting for some time; and then he left drums and banner on the field, and began to flee. The entire Chao army rushed out of their fortifications to pursue them and to capture the trophies. The general succeeded in joining his troops by the river bank, which was fighting with the utmost desperation. The men of Chao saw victory ahead.
Suddenly, the 2000 horsemen galloped to behind the deserted walls, tore up the enemy's flags and replaced them with the red flags of Han. When the Chao army looked back from the pursuit, the sight of these red flags struck them with terror. Convinced that the Hans had got in and overpowered their king, they broke up in wild disorder, every effort of their leader to stay the panic being in vain. Then General Han's army fell on them from both sides and completed the rout, killing a number and capturing the rest, amongst whom was the King of Chao himself.
After the battle, some of Han Hsin's officers came to him and asked, "In Sun Tzu's Art of War, we are told to have a hill on the right rear, and a river or marsh on the left front. You, on the contrary, ordered us to draw up our troops with the river at our back, which we should never do. Under these conditions, how did we manage to gain the victory?"
The general replied: "I fear you gentlemen have not studied the Art of War with sufficient care. Is it not written there: 'Plunge your army into desperate straits and it will come off in safety; place it in deadly peril and it will survive?' Had I taken the usual course, if I had not placed my troops in a position where they were obliged to fight for their lives, we would never have won against a larger army." The officers admitted the force of his argument, and said: "These are higher tactics than we are capable of."
There are two wonderful lessons here. First, similar to Steve Jobs' strategy of demanding that his engineers perform the impossible, a great leader does whatever it takes to extract the best work of his people. Second, and this is probably the more important lesson... don't follow the Art of War like a recipe book. True mastery of an art is formless. Again, the lesson here is not to blindly use a recipe for innovation, but to invent one for yourself. For example, when you install an innovation resource planning and management tool, you cannot install it blindly. You must understand the complete and entire context of innovation within your organization, and tune that system to correct your organization's weaknesses and promote your organization's strength. In this way, you can literally rewrite your organizational DNA to be more innovative in a natural and organic way.
Moving on, there is a second commentary to the Art of War, which is pretty gruesome. However, the lesson is valuable, so I share this story with you.
When the King of Wu invited Sun Tzu for a visit, he said to him, "I have carefully perused your 13 chapters. May I submit your theory of managing soldiers to a slight test?" Sun Tzu replied: "Yes, absolutely." Ho Lu then asked: "How about we apply your text to women?" The answer was again in the affirmative, since the theory should apply to any army, so arrangements were made to bring 180 ladies out of the Palace. Sun Tzu divided them into two companies, and placed one of the King's favorite concubines at the head of each. He then instructed them to take spears in their hands, and addressed them: "Ladies, I presume you know the difference between front and back, right hand and left hand?" The girls all replied: "Yes!" Sun Tzu went on: "When I say 'eyes front,' you must look straight ahead. When I say 'turn left,' you must face towards your left hand. When I say 'turn right,' you must face towards your right hand. When I say 'about face,' you must face right round towards your back. Do all of you understand this?" Again the girls assented. The words of command having been thus explained, he set up the halberds and battle-axes in order to begin the drill.
Then, to the sound of drums, he gave the order 'turn right.' But the girls only burst out laughing. Sun Tzu said: "If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame." So he started drilling them again, and this time gave the order "turn left" loudly and clearly, whereupon the girls once more burst into fits of laughter. Sun Tzu said: "If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if his orders ARE clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers." So saying, he ordered the leaders of the two companies to be beheaded.
Wow! My god! Anyway, the King of Wu was watching the scene from the top of a raised pavilion; and when he saw that his favorite concubines were about to be executed, he clutched his chest in worry and hurriedly sent down the following message: "We are now quite satisfied as to our general's ability to handle troops. If We are bereft of these two concubines, our meat and drink will lose their savor. It is our wish that they shall not be beheaded." Sun Tzu replied: "Having received His Majesty's commission to be the general of his forces and beholden assuring the success of your kingdom, there are certain commands of His Majesty which, acting in that capacity, I am unable to accept." Accordingly, he had the two leaders beheaded, and straightway installed the next two favorite concubines as leaders in their place. When this had been done, the drum was sounded for the drill once more; and the girls went through all the evolutions, turning to the right or to the left, marching ahead or wheeling back, kneeling or standing, with perfect accuracy and precision, not venturing to utter a sound.
Then Sun Tzu sent a messenger to the King saying: "Your soldiers, Sire, are now properly drilled and disciplined, and ready for your majesty's inspection. They can be put to any use that their sovereign may desire; bid them go through fire and water, and they will not disobey." But the King replied: "Let our general cease drilling and return to camp. As for us, We have no wish to come down and inspect the troops." Thereupon Sun Tzu said: "The King is only fond of talking about military action, he has no stomach for the reality of it, and cannot translate words into deeds." After that, Ho Lu realized Sun Tzu was one who knew how to handle an army, and finally appointed him general. Sun Tzu went on to win many battles and insure the stability of the kingdom.
The key here is that whenever you embark on an enterprise, you must approach it with absolute and complete dedication and focus and seriousness. If it's 'just a job', you don't stand a chance of achieving something memorable. However, if you approach the work with absolute deadly intent, you will also be able to manage a team more effectively. This is the reason that Steve Jobs was willing to fire the project lead for MobileMe publicly and with great fanfare, like a ritual beheading. He wanted his officers to instill great seriousness in the ranks. The MobileMe project was then turned around, and eventually became iCloud, which is a great success. Allowing failure to persist was not an option, no matter how politically suave that manager of MobileMe was.
There is one final story, from the commentary of Sun Tzu's Art of War that provides a remarkable lesson for management. This is a story related by Sun Pin, a descendent of Sun Wu: In 341 B.C., the Ch'i State being at war with Wei, sent T'ien Chi and Sun Pin against the general P'ang Chuan, who happened to be a deadly personal enemy of the later. Sun Pin said: "The Ch'i State has a reputation for cowardice, and therefore our adversary feels only contempt for us. Let us turn this perception around to our advantage."
Accordingly, when the army had crossed the border into Wei territory, he gave orders to show 100,000 fires on the first night, 50,000 on the next, and the night after only 20,000. And then he retreated. P'ang Chuan immediately abandoned his fortifications, and pursued Sun Pin hotly, saying to himself: "Ha! I knew these men of Ch'i were cowards... their numbers have already fallen away. This will be an easy rout." In his retreat, Sun Pin came to a narrow passage in a canyon, with he calculated that his pursuers would reach just after dark, during a new moon. Here he had a tree stripped of its bark, and inscribed upon it a message for P'ang Chang. Then, as night began to fall, he placed his best archers in ambush near by, with orders to shoot when they saw a light. That night, P'ang Chuan arrived at the spot, and noticing the tree, struck a light in order to read what was written on it. It said, "Under this tree, you, P'ang Chuan, shall die." His body was immediately riddled by a volley of arrows, and his entire army thrown into confusion. Sun Pin's army then easily won the battle and the war.
This story illustrates possibly the most important lesson for innovation. If you're going to do something, do it right. Plan excessively, because failure to plan is planning to fail. Next, timing is key. For this reason, when Steve Jobs prepared a product launch, he would plan incessantly, to the smallest detail. When he said the words, "Oh, just one more thing...." it would strike the competition like a volley of arrows.
Sun Tzu said, "Winning one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the apex of skill. To subdue the enemy without even fighting is the apex of skill." Thus, truly brilliant entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs are apparently able to capture new market areas without working up a sweat. But trust me, they did their homework.
Sun Tzu remarked that there were five essentials for victory, which we can translate to innovation and business instead of war: (1) he will win who knows when to compete and when to collaborate, (2) he will win who knows how to manage both superior and inferior employees, (3) he will win who is able to motivate the same level of spirit throughout the organization, (4) he will win who prepares his company for change, and waits to take the less agile competition unprepared, and (5) he will win who has innovative capacity and management expertise and is not hampered by inferior investors and directors.
Now of these four, the least intuitive is what Sun Tzu meant by 'preparing'... in business terms? In the business world, being unprepared means not only failing to project costs, sales and cash flow needs effectively, but also failing to adapt to change. As cost structures and business models change, slow moving incumbents are at a disadvantage as more agile competitors are better suited to capture emerging markets. The perfect example of unpreparedness is the demise of the mini-computer - manufacturers like Digital, Pyramid and Sequent. Not one of them ventured into the personal computer market, because their cost structure and resources allocation system didn't allow them to compete. So they went happily along, increasing the speed and the power of the minicomputer while completely ignoring the emerging "lower quality, less efficient" but cheaper and more convenient personal computers... like Apple.
This is the opportunity that faces entrepreneurs today, a dramatic climactic shift like a new Ice Age, driven by broad disruptive changes in technology and business models, making it easier than ever to compete and win. As a result, the time it takes to become a billionaire has shortened from about 30 or 40 years to just a few years. Therefore, the advantage is held by agile, smart and adaptive guerrilla generals, who were borne and bred for battle, who are poised against slow moving entrenched emperors, with no stomach for change and attached to their 401k's like a favorite concubine.
To paraphrase Sun Tzu: "Doing business without innovating is simply the noise before defeat."
Note: This is a final excerpt from my new book, Unleashing Your Inner Steve Jobs. If you'd like to get a free copy of the book - just send me a note and tell me what innovation means to you and I'll send it for free.