Complementary Opposites: The Law of Unintended Consequences

One of the least intuitive aspects of Sun Tzu's system of Sun Tzu's strategy is what we call "complementary opposites." According to bing-fa, all of nature exists, not as a steady state, but as a tension between opposing conditions. The climate and the ground, strength and weakness, offense and defense, male and female, emptiness and fullness, standards and innovation, group action and individual decision, knowledge and ignorance are all complementary opposites. Each condition not only creates its opposite but is a necessary condition of its opposite. In physics, Newton's third law says that "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Strategy would say that this law is just a specific example of a much more general law, which might be stated as, "Every condition creates its opposing condition." At first glance, it would seem that this law precludes progress. If you try to accomplish something, you actually create the opposite condition. However, this law doesn't mean that if you move north, you will go south (though it does infer that the further go north, the more likely it becomes that the advantage lies to the south). It simply means that you must leverage the natural force of opposites in the larger environment to your advantage. Rather than try to create opportunities by forcing them, you must recognized how conditions are developing and use the larger trends to your advantage. This often means recognizing when situations have gone too far and must start reversing themselves. Good strategy is all about discovering and using leverage rather than costly force. This is why I usually oppose government "solutions" to any problems that are more complex than simply killing the bad guys. Because of the nature of politics, government "solutions" demand straight-line thinking. However, according to good strategy, this seldom works. Foreign aid is a great example. Read this interview by the German magazine, Der Spiegel, of an expert on the economic situation in Kenya, James Shikwati. He explains in detail how the poverty in Africa has been and is being created by American and European economic aid and how the AIDS epidemic in Africa is being made worse by such "help." While Spiegel tries to describe the situation as a "paradox," Shikwati explains that it isn't a paradox at all but simply the nature of things. Nothing can give you a better insight to understand the dynamics of complementary opposites than reading this article in detail.