sun tau art of war digital strategy

Episode 67: Sun Tzu – The Art Of War In The Age Of Digital Strategy

“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.”

Preparation. It’s at the heart of the Art of War. The idea that knowledge is power, that careful and cold-eyed examination of your relative strengths and weaknesses and those of your competitors are what have made this a critical source of wisdom for military and corporate strategists for centuries. But how well does it hold up in the digital age? What lessons can the digital strategist glean from it? And has the disruptive power of digital change rendered the teachings of Sun Tzu meaningless today?

Sun was a general, strategist and philosopher who lived in China in the late Sixth Century BC. Sun Tzu is traditionally credited as the author of The Art of War, a widely influential work of military strategy that has affected both Western and Eastern philosophy.

It presents a philosophy of war for managing conflicts and winning battles and is accepted as a masterpiece on strategy.

I don’t think that anyone can dispute the idea that preparation still matters. This sits at the heart of the work of the strategist, especially given the complexity of the environment we navigate. But in digital media, there is often a rush to execution where a premium is placed on knowledge of the medium. In other words, it is deemed enough to know tactically how to manipulate digital platforms and channels. If you need any evidence of this look for organizations where digital functions report into IT.

The Art of War reminds us that self awareness and a deep understanding of the competitive landscape are critical to victory. In fact, Sun Tzu basically states that victory is not possible without understanding your opponent. Now ask yourself, when was the last time you invested considerable time, effort or resources in understanding your competitors, their strengths and tactics and modifying your positioning relative to theirs? But this is a point Sun returns to time and again. This understanding of your opponent guides not just your strategy, but also your tactical decisions. He writes that ‘When strong, avoid them. If of high morale, depress them. Seem humble to fill them with conceit. If at ease, exhaust them. If united, separate them. Attack their weaknesses. Emerge to their surprise’.

This is the first lesson we can apply to our work as digital strategists. Knowledge of the medium is good. Knowledge of self is better. Knowledge of the competition is best.

The Art of War goes beyond the idea of careful preparation. It puts forward the ideas of serenity and inscrutability, both concepts that are at the heart of Taoist thought. We have previously explored the importance of calmness as a key attribute of the digital strategist, and it is heartening to hear it echoed across the ages as a virtue. I particularly like that Sun Tzu advises to use your enemy’s intemperance against him, to goad him into rash action, or as he wrote ‘If your opponent is of choleric temper, irritate him’.

But this idea of inscrutability is interesting. Sun Tzu writes extensively of the need for deception and subtlety. He writes that you must ‘appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak’ and to ‘let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt’. How does this apply to us, given the fact that our work is available online for all to see and that our entire industry is about promoting your capabilities to your prospects? I believe the key lesson here is to be subtle and swift, to not telegraph your intentions but rather to unveil them quickly and to always stay on the move. Through speed and subtlety, you keep your opponent off balance and make them play to your strengths. As Sun Tzu wrote, ‘Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate’. We have explored this idea of formlessness and subtlety previously when we talked about what it means as a strategist to ‘be water’.

Sun Tzu also explores the idea of strategy that is based on relative resources. He writes that ‘He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces’. This is interesting to digital strategists since we often take a pretty standard approach to our work, regardless of resources. Understanding your competitive landscape helps you recognize where they are deeply invested and not only tells you where to focus, but also what to avoid. We often look at what the competition is doing and emulate their tactics. But this idea of truly differentiating your strategy and channels, of applying a blue ocean strategy to what you do is the path to success. Find the gap, go deep and become dominant in that channel. Let your competitor then take note of this and have them come to where you are strong. In the meantime, identify other gaps and move on to exploit them faster that the competition.

Preparation. Inscrutability. Subtlety. Speed. Differentiation. These concepts are as relevant to the digital strategist as they have been to our forbearers. We would do well to apply the lessons of a true strategic thinker. As Sun Tzu famously wrote, ‘Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat’.

Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

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