0.0 Comparing Choices

The nine keys to winning by realistically comparing alternatives.

Art of War Quote: 

Creating a winning war is like balancing a coin of gold against a coin of gold. 
Sun Tzu's The Art of War 4:4:15


Comparing and contrasting is a valuable human skill - and not just during high school English exams. Our ability to rank-order things is invaluable in making choices and setting priorities.
Martha Beck

General Principle: 

Competition skill comes down to making the right comparisons at the right time.


Competition is misunderstood by virtually everyone. People think of competition as a fight among competitors. They think that the opposite of competition is cooperation. This view of competition almost instantly dooms them to failure. 

Competition is simply comparison. Before any choice is made, people compare alternatives. This comparison is what we call "competition." All alternatives in every human decision can be said to be in competition with each other. This is true in large matters, such as choosing careers and life partners, and, in small matters, such as choosing a TV show to watch or what to eat for lunch. All these competitions have winners and losers. Even cooperation requires competition because we must choose who we cooperate with and how. This competition must take place before there is an cooperation. The true opposite of competition is having no choice. If there are no alternatives, there is no competition among them. 

We make better choices, but making more appropriate comparisons. The better our comparisons, the more we win in competition. The problem is that most people have no organized approach to this type of competitive decision-making. They do not know what decisions they should focus upon at any given point in time. They lack the skills for seeing all possible options. They have no method for choosing the best alternative among those that present themselves. The result is that most competitive success appears as though it is largely a matter of luck. 

But the situation is even worse than that. All competition and our choices are time sensitive. All situations favor those who can make the right decisions quickly. But many choices involve more information than we have time to process. The result is that most decisions must be made with very limited information. Our success is not just a matter of managing our own choices, but the choices of others: our rivals and our allies. Meanwhile, complete strangers make choices that create events that affect us, but for which we completely are unprepared. 


Success in competition requires making better choices. A systematic process of comparison limits the information we need to make good choices. It reduces the key information needed to a relative few elements. Sun Tzu's system teaches us how to make "better choices" in competition, defining "better" in a way that is useful in almost any situation. Our opportunity is not that Sun Tzu provides a system for making perfect decisions, but rather that he gives us a way of consistently making better decisions than the vast majority of other people. Even if they haven't studied Sun Tzu directly, every successful person is consciously using aspects of his system. The advantage in studying Sun Tzu is that we do not have to learn these lessons the hard way: by trial and error. 

By practicing Sun Tzu's methods, we can develop a gut instinct for making the right decisions quickly. We know where we must focus our attention in a given situation. The key information pops out a fog do data because we know what to look for. 

Key Methods: 

All of Sun Tzu's key methods involve making comparisons. The methods or "plays" in Sun Tzu's Playbook fall into nine key areas. While the plays in each of these areas are important in themselves, they also go together to create a systematic process for building success in any competitive environment.

  1. We must learn the plays for comparing competitive positions. A "position" is defines the elements that separate one competitive choice from another. As competitors, we have a position in every arena is which people make judgments about us. Our goal is to advance our position, moving it toward our goals by winning supporters and discouraging opponents. As we make choices between alternatives, we are comparing the positions of others to improve our own position (1.0.0 Competitive Positioning). 
  2. We must learn the plays for comparing systems for acquiring the information we need to make better choices. Our decisions can be no better than our information. Our information can be no better than our systems for collecting it. We cannot develop better intelligence systems without knowing the key elements in a good communication network. Information systems are compared based upon their ability to put situations into the proper perspective (2.0.0 Developing Perspective
  3. We must learn the plays for comparing the changes in our environment to identify opportunities. If nothing changed, no new opportunities would arise. Opportunities are openings that allow us to advance our position with a minimum of effort. People do not see their opportunities because they do not understand how to use change to spot opportunities. Opportunities are invisible because they are literally the absence of something, rather than its presence (3.0.0 Identifying Opportunities).
  4. We must learn the plays for comparing the probabilities of success when choosing which opportunities to pursue. Once we learn how to see opportunities, we will see them all around us. However, we do not have the time or resources to choose them all. We must compare them in order to pick those with the best probability of success (4.0 Leveraging Probability). 

  5. We must learn the plays for comparing red flags that indicate that a given course of action will lead us into a disaster. Opportunities come both with a potential for success and a potential for failure. The goal of this comparison is not eliminating our mistakes as much as minimizing them (5.0.0 Minimizing Mistakes). 

  6. We must learn the plays for comparing situations to pick the most appropriate response to current developments. Campaigns to advance a position go through certain stages of development. At each stage, the relationship between a competitor and the environment evolves in predictable ways. Common competitive challenges are best met with a specific type of response. The right plays are chosen by recognizing these situations and reacting appropriately (6.0 Situation Response). 
  7. We must learn the plays for comparing the alternatives for creating momentum. Most people misunderstand what momentum really is and how it is used to make progress. Therefore they do not see their alternative in terms of combining proven techniques and innovation to create momentum. Properly played, momentum allows us to turn temporary triumphs into permanent improvements in position (7.0 Creating Momentum).
  8. We must learn the plays for comparing approaches to winning rewards from advancing positions. The goal of all our choices in winning rewards. However, simply being successful in advancing our position doesn't automatically guarantee that we will gain the rewards we had hoped to gain from advancing our position. The goal is not only to be rewarded for progress, but to maximize those rewards (8.0 Winning Rewards).
  9. We must learn the plays for comparing our vulnerabilities and our resources for defending our positions. Every position has both strengths and weaknesses. We advance our position on the basis of its strengths. However, we must evaluate our position on the basis of its weaknesses, its vulnerabilities. While generally it is easier to defend than to advance, we cannot choose the right forms of defense without understanding where our weaknesses lie and the dangers they represent (9.0 Understanding Vulnerability). 


To illustrate these ideas, we will look at a wide variety of situations in which competitions takes place because comparisons are made. 

  1. We must learn the plays for comparing competitive positions. An employee has positions with the company, the boss, fellow employees, customers, and others. A business owner has positions with customers, employees, suppliers, the bank, and so on. Romantic partners have positions with each others, their families, their friends, and so on. Children have positions with their parents, teachers, classmates, as well as positions in any competitive sports or events they take part in. Sales people have position with their customers, with their prospects, within their company, and so on. 
  2. We must learn the plays for comparing systems for acquiring the information we need to make better choices. An employee can rely on information from friends at work when such friends may be no better informed than he is. A business owner can rely upon information from the most outspoken employees or customers. Romantic partners hear each other's comments only through filters of expectations and fear. Children initially get their information from parents and gradually shift to their friends. Sales people too often talk more than they listen. Everyone generally pays to much attention to mass media rather than individual insights. 
  3. We must learn the plays for comparing the changes in our environment to identify opportunities. Too many employees ignore changes in their external dealings with customers and supplier while fearing changes within existing operations. A business owner cannot see changes within their marketplace and general decaying of their position while focusing on the day-to-day operations. Romantic partners too often focus on big changes in commitment rather than incremental changes in relationship. Children see change as predictable part of the aging process but external changes as frightening. Sales people fail to realize that change in the environment is the only basis for customers changing their past buying decisions. 
  4. We must learn the plays for comparing the probabilities of success when choosing which opportunities to pursue. Employees too often want promotions into position that pay better or look more satisfying while failing to consider their fit with those positions. Business owners too often copy what has been already been successful for others losing to the law of diminishing returns. Romantic partners rely upon tests and ultimatums; no matter how likely they are to blow up relationships. Children do the same. Sales people oversell their products, creating dissatisfaction and distrust.
  5. We must learn the plays for comparing red flags that indicate that a given course of action will lead us into a disaster. Employees take jobs with shaky companies because they pay better. Business owners make business commitments that require more resources than they have. Romantic partners overlook faults hoping their partners will change. Children think that all dangers are as trivial as their parents' rules against eating candy or staying up late. Sales people overlook red flags and invest too much time in selling customers who are not qualified for the product.
  6. We must learn the plays for comparing situations to pick the most appropriate response to current developments. Employees do not realize that an employer's expectations change as they gain more experience, get promoted, and earn more. Business owners don't know when they should work with competitors or work against them. Romantic partners think of their relationships in terms of the dating they did as children not as partners, parents, and mutual caretakers they will become. Children think that the current situation, good or bad, is the only situation, not realizing how each leads to the next. Sales people, like generals, think the the methods that were successful in the last sales process will work as well in the next one.
  7. We must learn the plays for comparing the alternatives for creating momentum. Employees must leverage their successes not just into a pay raise but into a career. Business owners too often look to maintain a level of success without realizing that businesses can only go up or down, seldom remaining the same. Romantic partners must understand how to leverage dramatic moment into emotional commitments. Children must learn how to build on what they are good at instead of focusing on where they are embarrassed. Sales people must view the sales process as one of building customers relationships over the long term. 
  8. We must learn the plays for comparing approaches to winning rewards from advancing positions. Employees must leverage their increased productivity into more compensation. Business owners are not compensated for doing what they want but for doing what their customers want. Romantic partners must reward their partners and find their relationship rewarding. Children must learn that all the most rewarding success is that for which they work. Sales people sell what they are best compensated for selling, but realize that all compensation isn't found in the next paycheck. 
  9. We must learn the plays for comparing our vulnerabilities and our resources for defending our positions. Employees must realize that they cannot be successful if their employer is not successful. Business owners must realize that it doesn't matter how great their products are, but how their products make their customers feel great. Romantic partners must minimize the costs to their partner for maintaining the relationship. Children think they are invulnerable and must learn the hard way that they are not. Sales people must realize that it is easier keeping customers than winning new ones. 

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