Sun Tzu and The Art of War – Is it Time to Reframe?

Sun Tzu’s famous treatise on the art of war has become a bible for business people, and in particular sales people. In recent weeks I have heard many people quote Sun Tzu in meetings in a combative way as they beat their metaphorical breastplates, and this worries me.

How does the statement “all warfare is based on deception” square with the salesperson’s oft stated goal of creating a “win-win situation” on any deal? In my book, being deceitful is no foundation for a win. Think how angry you feel when you have been deceived. Do you consider that a “win?” No, neither do I.

So how can we reframe this? One way is to remember that Sun Tzu emphasised how important positioning is in any military campaign. In a business scenario, are we talking about the “positions” both sides take in a negotiation? I don’t think so. For me, positioning means how we get ready for the negotiation. Why do we check and re-check our own offering before we begin? How do we research our prospective client/supplier? More importantly why do we do so? Is it to gain a “competitive advantage?” The obvious answer, of course, is “yes” but, I submit, it goes much deeper than this in that what we are actually doing is trying to understand both ourselves and our “opponent”, and because we understand we can plan. What do military commanders need in order to be able to “position” their forces? An understanding of the environment of the battlefield, both physical layout (hills, woodland etc.) and the defences or attacking positions of the enemy, and an understanding of what the enemy commander is likely to be thinking and planning in response, hence the need for massive amounts of intelligence. Another analogy is the game of chess. Why are Grand Masters successful? It is because they have such a deep understanding of the game and all the possible strategies that they can quickly work out how their opponent is likely to play each game based on the first few moves.

Many who view their world framed by The Art of War see business as being adversarial. But question them and they will tell you instantly that business is about relationships. Ironically they may not realise that The Art of War enhances this view rather than negates it. Because both the book and relationships are about understanding, hence my feeling that we need to reframe this thinking. As Sun Tzu says: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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