The center of Sun Tzu's system is the strategic position. A position consists of five elements. The interaction of these elements assures us that 1) new positions are constantly being created and 2) existing positions are constantly being destroyed. This means that all positions are dynamic. Even as we try to describe them, they are changing. This process is in Chinese philosophy known as the cycle of birth and death, creation an destruction. Understanding it is required for formulating good strategies, since all decisions deal with the future not the past.
Much of Sun Tzu's system is hidden in the traditions of classical Chinese science. Even those who have studied Sun Tzu's text for year cannot understand his work if they haven't spent some time studying the Classical Chinese systems. One of these hidden secrets is Sun Tzu patterns for the "creation" and "destruction" of the five key elements that define a competitive position. Even more interesting is the fact that he uses these two patterns to describe the flow of resources and the "reverse" flow of information.
Though I have used these ideas for years in my writing explaining Sun Tzu, I have never described it directly in any of my writing. It is a little too abstract and "inside Sun Tzu" for casual students and my general explanations and adaptations of strategy. It probably belongs in the next edition of Amazing Secrets of Sun Tzu, which will probably not come out until next year. This is the first place I have described this aspect of his system.
The Classical Patterns
As you may know, the Classical Chinese five element system is used to classify a wide variety of phenomena. It is also used to explain the dynamics of nature in the "creation" and "destruction" of elements.
Using this same arrangement of the Five Elements, there is another way to connect them. This is the "Destruction Cycle" as a five-pointed star pattern.
Sun Tzu's Patterns of Creation and Destruction
What is interesting is that Sun Tzu's elements can be arranged in this same circle and connected in the same way to make the creation and destruction patterns.
Using the same position of elements, the
Flows of Resources and Information
These patterns are more useful than simply describing "creation" and "destruction." They are also useful in understanding the flow of resources and information in the competitive environment.
If we reverse these flows, we see the pattern of flow of rewards (additional wealth, time, and energy) from successful competition. Reward from the ground are harvested by methods. The rewards from methods enrich command. The success of command strengthens mission. The success of mission improves climate. The improved climate enriches the ground.
This gets really interesting because "destruction cycles" charts the flow or control of information. Information from the environment's ground goes into command decision making. The flow of information leaders goes out into the environment through its effect on climate. The flow of information from changes in the environment get into the organization through methods. The flow of information generated by methods goes into mission as progress is evaluated against goals. The flow of information from mission goes out into the environment through the ground, as others learn of our ideas and motivation.
A more advanced student of Sun Tzu may notice that this five flows of information also match Sun Tzu's five types of spies or, as I prefer to call them, information conduits. Ground information comes to leaders through local conduits. Inside conduits bring information about the plans of leaders into the climate. Surviving conduits bring information from changes the environment into the organization's methods. Double conduits bring information on methods to its goals. Information about goals goes out into the environmental ground through doomed conduits.
So, if we reverse these flow what do we get? We get the patterns of destructive flows of information or mistakes of control. Mission (or ideals) alone cannot dictate methods. Methods cannot change climate. Climate should not change command. Command cannot command ground. Ground cannot change mission. I could offer a lot of examples of these mistakes being made, but I will leave it for readers to figure out the shades of meaning indicated by this pattern.
The Deepr Levels
Sun Tzu's system describes some deeper truth about the abstract nature of competition. While I know little about the utility of the classical Chinese system in describing the natural world, it is simply elegant in the form that Sun Tzu applied it to world of competition.
While we use English words to describe Sun Tzu's elements, the original characters in ancient Chinese were broad concepts. Sun Tzu defined them by their relationships with other elements. While it is useful to understand the pieces and parts that make up each element in order to understand the concepts, it is just as important to understand their relationships with each other. The yinyang relationships joining ground with climate and command with methods around a core of mission is just the start of these relationship.