Strategy Institute

More Freedom Means More Uncertainty

Planning and control are good things, but their opposites, strategy and freedom, are also good things. The complementary opposites of Sun Tzu's strategy balance each other. It is wrong to think of them as good against evil. We need areas of control in order to design and build things. Large areas of control, such as corporations, a necessary to build large, complicated things. This planning and control only becomes oppressive when its opposite, freedom and strategy, are suppressed. That suppression leads to stagnation and increasing frustration.

Pushing and Pushing Back

Strategy teaches us to avoid conflict because when you push others, they naturally push back. This sets up a cycle of conflict that naturally escalates if both parties have excess resources. Once started, the process doesn't get anyone closer to their goals. For a good example, we can look at Google and Microsoft. One makes its money in selling advertising via on-line searches. The other makes it money in selling desktop software.

Feeding Momentum

Many times a contest reaches a tipping point when one party clearly has momentum on their side. During this period, this momentum feeds itself, like a runner getting a burst of adrenalin from taking the lead. Does this mean that their success is certain? Only if their opponents accept their eventual defeat. Sudden changes can undo momentum in a moment. Balancing competitive forces tend to burn out momentum over time. All it takes is one big surprise going the other way to change everything.

Quitting Too Early

One of the most common strategic mistakes is giving up simply because the contest does not go as planned. The contest never goes as planned. Those that succeed take the long view that expects new opportunities to arise. For example, recently John Edwards, Rudy Guilliani, and Fred Thompson dropped out of the presidential race because of their various third place finishes.

Difficult Choices

A member of the Strategy School writes:
I can not help thinking that whatever direction I choose to take, it has to lead to some larger long term reward. I feel absolutely surrounded and overwhelmed by opportunity. But I feel that I’m searching for “the” route to the land of megabucks...Maybe I should focus on making lots of small decisions and like you say the big ones will fall into place.

Missing the Bigger Picture

Surprise and the big picture are my most common topics recently. Most people work so closely to their situation that they miss the big picture. This leads inevitably to surprise. We are seeing great examples of this in the presidential primaries. For example, when the pundits look at primary results in S. Carolina, they see that Fred Thompson took third and conclude that he should drop out. However, strategically, it is possible to never win a battle and eventually win the war.

Little Picture, Big Picture

Sun Tzu's strategy requires seeing beyond the immediate situation into the big picture. Planning is reductive, reducing each process to a series of smaller, discrete steps. Sun Tzu's strategy is additive, adding each discrete situation to a bigger picture that, ideally, others do not see. I offer the following joke as an illustration.
A boy enters a barber shop. The barber whispers to his customer, "This is the dumbest kid in the world. Watch! I'll prove it to you."

Rediscovering Strategy

As we noted in the last post, momentum comes only from surprise. As those unfamiliar with strategy observe this effect, it always surprises them. For example, in a recent article about the presidential primaries, the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder observes:
Momentum seems to skip the next state up and seems to benefit the person who exceeded expectations, rather than the winner.

Avoiding Long Contests

One of the best ways to avoid long, drawn out contests is by using surprise. In Sun Tzu's strategy, surprise creates momentum. Momentum tips the scale so that people who were undecided gravitate toward your side. A lack surprises or balance of surprises defuses momentum putting the contest in doubt and encouraging everyone to continue.

Classic Defense against Larger Opponent: Invade

One of the nine common strategic situations is called "scattering terrain," which occurs when you are attacked by a larger, well-prepared opponent. The required response is to invade the opponent's territory and endanger what the opponent loves. How easy is this? I give you the wondrous example of Ezra Levine, under attack by a Canadian Human Rights Commission (watch the videos).


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