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Beware the lure of the strategy metaphor

Sun TzuThe Art of War, written more than 2000 years ago, has become a standard textbook for any executive wanting to learn the basics of strategy.

The principles of waging war laid out by the military philosopher Sun Tzu seem fairly relevant, especially when he deals with issues like understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your own troops and those of the enemy. This can even be intoxicating for the strategy junkie, who thrills at the parallels to be found between the ancient Chinese battlefield and the corporate boardroom.

The problem is that most people don’t get the connection.

Not because they are too dense to deduce what AOL and Time-Warner or Microsoft and Facebook could have learned from the alliance between the soldiers of Wu and Yueh, but because they find that there are far more relevant lessons to be learned from modern thinkers and strategists. Not to mention from the business successes and failures of the 21st century.

More than that, these metaphors are a modern boardroom version of using parables and fables to teach lessons in human behaviour. Instead of coming right out with what are often obvious rules and principles, the metaphors beat about the bush and try to draw validity from unexpected sources – the more bizarre, the better.

The flight patterns of the geese, the dynamics of a pride of lions, the social structure of the kraal, the leadership style of Moses or Jesus, the motivations of Shakespearean characters, have all been used to teach business strategy.

In itself, there is nothing wrong with that. This blog will draw on anything from the behaviour of motorists in the traffic to the principles of attacking soccer to make points about business strategy. But it has to be understood that metaphors are limited, and often do not survive intense scrutiny.

I came to this realisation while trying to explain the relevance of Sun Tzu to a colleague. He wanted to know what I was smoking.

As far as he could tell, Sun Tzu advocated invasion of foreign territory and plundering fertile territory to feed your troops, while throwing them into situations from which there was no escape so that they would fight to the death and thus achieve extraordinary victories. Didn’t sound like great business strategy to him.

I then attempted an exercise: from how many situations or experiences that could be drawn on in my immediate environment could I drag metaphors for strategy and principles of business?

By the time I found myself making a convincing case for learning strategy from the way children behave in the nursery school playground, I realised that I had uncovered a bottomless pit. But when I found myself examining the behaviour of shoppers in a busy parking lot to see what strategic lessons could be learned, I knew I was falling.

A few strong cups of coffee woke me up from ponderings about the way old ladies with supermarket trolleys outmanoeuvre the youngsters, and about the territorial wars on Umhlanga beach front during holiday season.

Strategy is to be found everywhere, but the challenge is to make it meaningful – to everyone involved in it. And drawing on the lessons of your business environment, whether that involves a major competitor or the entire industry sector, is going to deliver the most meaningful strategic lessons you will find.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I want to check whether the moon is in the Sagittarius (or Zhen) constellation. Mr Tzu tells me that this would represent a time of rising winds, and thus a most suitable time to attack by raising fires…

One Comment, Comment or Ping

  1. Hi Arthur,

    I fully agree. There is so much we can learn from that time.The value of Zen Koans cannot be ignored.

    The one that I love the most. Two guys were argueing over whether the wind was moving or pulling the flag on a parade ground, when the Master walked past and said: ” It doesn’t matter, the point is you’re thinking!”

    With regards to the reference of a nursery school, I operate in the circles of teaching managers how to manage stakeholder reputation & relationships. There is a cradinal rule: When you are in your stakeholders’s sandpit you have to play by their rules, so make sure you know their rules – that goes for media , supllier, employee and customer relations!


The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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