There is no doubt that there is a strong bond between classical military strategy and modern business strategy. Countless books on how to apply the, "Art of War" by Sun Zi (孫子兵法) to the modern business world have been written. However, many of these books fail to communicate crucial factors that can greatly effect a modern executives ability to successfully apply the principles, tactics, and strategies presented into bettering their business operations.
There are hundreds if not thousands of other classical Chinese military strategy books that exist. Many of those that predate the "Art of War" by Sun Zi have been translated by Translator and Author Ralph Sawyer. Therefore, it would be a diligent endeavor for those that are interested to read up on other insights into classical strategy to compare and contrast them with "The Art of War" by Sun Zi. With enough research, especially in later published commentaries on the, "Art of War", and the works that predate the "Art of War", it soon becomes clear that in order to implement even the shallowest level of knowledge disseminated in these classical works, one must have a firm grasp on the distinction between strategy and tactics.
When many modern authors and executives speak of strategic execution and implementation, often times, they are actually practicing tactical execution and implementation. This is not merely a semantic discrepancy, one who believes that they are implementing a strategy, however, are in fact only implementing a tactical approach prove through their implementation that they do not have a broad enough mind to truly think and act strategically. In turn, their implementation struggles, fails, and/or creates a weakened state of affairs.
Strategy is defined as broad scope plan that is constructed to achieve one or more large scale objectives under uncertain conditions.
A tactic is defined as a conceptual action that is implemented as one or more specific tasks.
Tactics enable the achievement of a strategy and are generally task specific. Strategy is not an action or task but the core of an initiative, it is the vision that is built for a long term sustainable objective. This is a fundamental teaching of the "Art of War" and of other classical and modern strategic works. Strategies account for anticipated and un-anticipated variables and reactions. Strategies are dynamic and multi-faceted. Strategy relies upon tactics as support. However, strategy will NEVER be one or two simple actions to get past a problem. Many modern works on strategy DO NOT account for this. Time and time again, authors and executives will claim that they are applying strategic principles from "The Art of War" in the modern business world, but upon deeper inspection they almost always reveal their shallow understanding of the far reaching and multilayered scope of even the most basic levels of strategy.
Though a well known book that enjoys multiple editions, and translations into five languages, "Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Strategies for Managers" by Mark R. McNeilly (Oxford University Press; 2011) perfectly demonstrates shallow understanding of strategic implementation due to confusing strategy and tactics. As evidence, McNeilly's use of the word strategy in the following paragraph should be replaced by the word tactic.
"So, in an effort to hit competitors hard and regain market share, the CEO of Phillip Morris agreed to cut the price of Marlboros by 40 cents per pack, or 20%. This strategy was based on a single market test in Oregon."
he goes on to describe the losses that Philip Morris suffered, and his conclusion is:
"As you can see, a strategy based solely on cutting prices to attack competitors is seldom beneficial."
Indeed, McNeilly proves the point that Philip Morris dropping prices destroyed the market and led to catastrophic loss. However, though he calls the chapter "Win all without fighting: Capturing your market without destroying it" a strategic principle, he fails at conveying to the reader any ability to understand what implementing strategy is. Thus, he forfeits the deeper meaning behind the strategic principle due to the inability to convey even the most base levels of strategy. Strategic principle that is not coupled with high level implementation of strategy is weak and will surely surrender to lesser principle under stress. Cutting prices is a simple tactic and will NEVER be a strategy. Using the above example, a better didactic conclusion would be that Philip Morris failed because they used one single tactic rather than an in depth and long reaching strategic approach.
This is a prime example of how most authors, executives, and others haphazardly use the word strategy, and therefore pervert the strategic principle disseminated in The Art of War to their readers. In turn, we are often left with an excellent demonstration of an author's shallow understanding of classical military principle and how it is applicable to modern business.
I have constructed a simple sketch diagram to demonstrate the minimum level of complexity necessary for a strategic approach to any matter. If an initiative less than three layers deep in preparation, it is NOT strategic. I hope they are of use to you, your business and forming future strategic approaches.
A few conclusions that can be made from the above diagram:
1. Tactical advantage cannot be enjoyed without fulfillment of an anticipated response
2. Any amount of initiatives may be added to achieve a single objective
3. Any amount of objectives may be added to achieve a single strategy
4. Anticipated and un-anticipated responses may vary in number, be sure to plan in advance for further anticipated and un-anticipated responses
5. The above diagram has one main weakness if it is to adhere to its own contained system (i.e. - there is one layer missing) can you guess what it is?
CONCLUSION: If you apply the above diagram as the basic functioning model of any strategy, your operations will receive enhanced benefit. DO NOT confuse strategic principle and strategic application as the same thing.
Adam Kryder has extensive experience operating business in foreign markets. He specializes in bridging cultural and communication gaps to help businesses more effectively and efficiently conduct business in international markets.