Use The Art of War to Grow Your Business

In business, we are always seeking guidance and direction. The complex nature of business leads us to look for frameworks and philosophies that will inform our decision-making.

The Origins of Strategy

Modern business strategy has its origins in military strategy. The essence of business is to prevail over your competition to win market share and increase profit. Most business transactions are a zero-sum game where one participant wins, while the other loses.
 
As an example, let's imagine you sell toasters. Very few customers want or need two toasters. So, once the sale is made, one seller wins, and everyone else loses.
 
Carl von Clausewitz was a Prussian general and military theorist. His most famous book, On War, focused on the psychological and political aspects of conflict, rather than traditional military strategy.

"War is a clash between major interests....Rather than comparing it to art we could more accurately compare it to commerce, which is also a conflict of human interests and activities."

Sun Tzu & The Art of War

Sun Tzu was a Chinese general, strategist, philosopher, and author. He lived around 400 B.C. during a period known as The Age of the Warring States.
 
His book The Art of War has become a classic of military strategy. It is one of the best-selling business-related books of all time and it is studied by MBA students around the world. Unfortunately, the combination of arcane language and the challenge of translating military concepts into mercantile concepts makes The Art of War difficult to understand.
The Art of War Book

Winning Without Fighting

One of Sun Tzu's primary principles is to win without fighting. While this may seem counter-intuitive, an in-depth look at the concept reveals some elegant insights.

"Battles are dangerous affairs."
"He who struggles for victory with naked blades is not a good general."
Sun Tzu is not saying that you should not engage in conflict, just that you should not engage in battles that will result in heavy losses or destruction of the terrain. What's the point of winning a battle where your army is decimated and the buildings, crops, and land are destroyed or severely damaged? Winning a battle such as this is a Pyrrhic victory (a victory that comes at great cost, perhaps making the ordeal to win not worth it).
 
An excellent example is illustrated by the game of chess. In chess, the object is to "take" the opponent's king. The term "checkmate" comes from the Persian shah mat, meaning "the king is dead."
Chess vs. Go
At the beginning of a game of chess, both sides have a full complement of pieces, each with representative abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Over the course of a game, each side loses pieces until one side is able to "take" the other's king. Truly a Pyrrhic victory, the board is littered with dead pieces and one king has been captured.

Contrast this with the ancient Chinese game of Go. In a game of Go, each side works to capture terrain with his pieces. At the end of the game, the board is full of pieces, with the winner holding more terrain than the loser. While it is possible to capture an opponent's pieces in Go by surrounding them, this is a secondary objective to that of capturing and holding terrain.

Go vs. Chess

The comparison between these games is an excellent illustration of the idea that there are different ways to win, and the superior way is usually to do so without direct conflict that results is losses of resources in order to win - a Pyrrhic victory.

The Art of War Applied to Business

As you plan your business strategy, seek to find ways to control the most of the market (market share - or terrain in Sun Tzu's lingo). You should seek to control this market share with the smallest possible investment of resources. Don't try to win by destroying your competitor through endless fighting.
 
To win without fighting may need the use of deception, subtlety, and other less obvious tactics. Asymmetric concepts like the effective use of agility (which is a strength of many small businesses) can also be an effective method of winning. Being agile, slippery, unconventional, and employing unexpected actions, can all be tools to win without fighting.

Blue Ocean Strategy

Blue Ocean Strategy is a book written in 2004 by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, professors at INSEAD. The name of the book is synonymous with the name of the marketing theory.
 
Blue ocean strategy is the simultaneous pursuit of differentiation and low cost to create new market space and create new demand. It is about creating and capturing uncontested market space, thereby making the competition irrelevant.
Blue Ocean Strategy

This strategy concept is an approach to winning without fighting. The idea of opening up a new market space and creating new demand are ways of growing revenue without engaging directly with your competition.

Final Thoughts

The principles and concepts of military strategy, both ancient ideas and more modern interpretations, can be very effective tools to design a business model that will win.
 
Business competition is often asymmetric. Large companies with lots of resources compete with much smaller companies. Business is unfair. The only way for a smaller company to win is through the use of asymmetric strategies and tactics that use their own strengths to exploit the weaknesses of their adversaries.
 
The role of strategic frameworks like blue ocean strategy can be fundamental to finding ways to win without fighting. Understanding the tenets of the theory will provide a significant competitive advantage over competitors who are mired in the status quo.
 
Finally, the use of business wargames and other competitive strategy development methodologies can help a company to come up with powerful ideas for how to win without fighting.

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Mark Hope

Mark A. Hope is the founder and CEO of Asymmetric Marketing – a unique agency specializing in building high-performing sales and marketing systems, campaigns, processes, and strategies for small businesses. Asymmetric has extensive experience with organizations across many industry segments. If you would like some help in implementing ideas like these in this article, feel free to give Mark a call at 866-607-3593 or by email at [email protected]

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