29 January 2014

Strength is More than just Number - Sun Zi tells us how to kill giants

We tend to think that strength comes from number. When we have more staff or more things then we think we are stronger than others. However, Sun Zi tells us that there are five other factors to be considered. Knowing them allows us to overcome others that are bigger than us. This reveals the secrets of how new upstart can topple the established large organization. The true comparative strength come from how you exploit the situational relative factors and enable the seemingly small to overcome the giant.
There is a powerful word in Chinese 势 that captures the essence of strength. This word has no equivalent in English, and we need to use a few words to explain what is it. 势 is translated as power, strength, tendency, potential and momentum. The objective is to create such a big wave or an avalanche that cannot be resist 势不可挡。 The concept of snowballing, a snow ball running down from a high mountain will create such a big destructive force. Such concept is described in Sun Zi Arts of War Chapter 5 Army Strength 兵势。

The mind-map below captures the 6 factors that define Strength and how to exploit them to create the competitive advantages to win every battle.

The Six Factors to Create the Overcoming Momentum
  1. “分数” Number
    1. Chaos or Order comes from number.
    2. To have order, divide the large number to smaller ones for ease of management
    3. The Chinese word for number 分数 is about divide and then count.
    4. A strategy for war is to divide the enemy large number into smaller divisions and then you concentrate your small number to attack the divided small division.
  2. “形名” Formation Shape
    1. Different formation shapes have different power at different directions and also dictate the speed of movement and communications. Sun Zi cited the round formation for all round defense.
    2. In other chapters, Sun Zi warned us that if we cover too large an area or too many directions, then we are also spreading our forces thin.
    3. The principle of war is then all about fit, the right formation for the right task against the particular form of enemy attack or defense.
  3. “奇正” Surprise or Straight-Forward 
    1. Strength comes from surprising the enemy such as at a time he is not ready or expecting, or a path where he is not defending etc. 
    2. Surprise and Direct must be used interchangeably to create endless variations. In business terms, innovations must be endless for sustainable success.
  4. “虚实” Weak or Strong
    1. It is obvious to use one strength to attack other weakness. Hence Sun Zi goes deeper to show us how to create strength and get enemy into weakness! One is to shape it such that enemy will take the path you one. Another is to give in so that enemy will take it. Another is to lure him with profits into our strongholds where we will be waiting for them.
  5. “势” - Tendency, Momentum, Potential Power (势之本义为潜存待发之力)
    1. A key teaching from Sun Zi is that the strength comes not from relying on our men but on the situation - the terrain, weather, timing (day or night, now or later) . The order is to choose the situation that naturally gives us the most advantage and then select and deploy our best men for the task.
  6. “节” - Speed of Decision
    1. The potential strength created in factor 5 must be released or triggered quickly at the right time and in the shortest possible time to get the maximum impact. SunZi uses the stretched bow to shows the large potential energy created and the trigger as the mechanism to release all the stored energy in the shortest possible time to give the maximum fire power. 
    2. In modern air war, OODA Observe, Orient, Decide and Act is proposed by a famous pilot for success in air combat. 
Finally, as we execute our strategies, the situation will change, and we need to constantly learn and renew our strategies. Of course, the speed of change needed depends on the industry we are in. Inductrial Clock-speed is a good concept to grasp.

So, if you are a new start-up, don't be too concern about your small size. Understand the 6 factors that determine the comparative strength and pick the right strategy for your growth. If you are the senior managers for a large corporation, please be aware that your 'largeness' may not be a true strength but a disorderly stumbling block with infighting and sluggishness! Take a new look at the situations and determine your true strengths and weaknesses. 

A Prosperous and Joyful Chinese New Year wish for you, your family and your business.

For more on Sun Zi, see Sun Zi Art of War (Sun Tzu) in One Minute

Lim Liat (c) 29 Jan 2014

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