Complementary Opposites: The Levers of Competition ~

At the heart of Sun Tzu’s strategic system of comparing positions are two ideas. First, strategic positions arise in an environment of natural balancing forces in a temporary dynamic equilibrium. Second, we can leverage these forces to “win without conflict.” This article explains the balance of forces that we describe as "complementary opposites", which Sun Tzu based on the Chinese philosophy of yin-yang. At the heart of Sun Tzu's strategic system of comparing positions are two ideas. First, strategic positions arise in an environment of natural balancing forces in a temporary dynamic equilibrium. Second, we can leverage these forces to "win without conflict." This article explains the balance of forces that we describe as "complementary opposites", which Sun Tzu based on the Chinese philosophy of yin-yang.

All situations exist because many different opposing forces balance each other. Seemingly opposite forces are actually two necessary sides of the same system. Sun Tzu references thirty-two different such pairs of opposing forces at work in competitive situations. Each provides a point of comparison among alternatives. He starts listing these pairs in the very beginning of his work: the army and the nation, creation and destruction, the ground and climate, the leader and method, and so on. Many of these pairs are connected in fundamental ways. For example, larger forces are always slower than smaller forces. Each complementary pair is a system in itself and all these pairs work together as part of the whole competitive picture.

In the West, we have taken a more deterministic and reductionist view of systems, but even Plato recognized that these linear methods have natural limits. The only way to get beyond them is the "dialectic" of seeing the deeper truth that resolves an apparent conflict. As the modern physicist, Neils Bohr put it, "The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth."

Many modern sciences such as physics and chemistry depend on the idea of equilibrium starting with the idea that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. What we see as separate forces are best seen as a connected system. If that system didn't naturally balance itself, the universe would dissolve into chaos. The ancient Greeks call the concept of a balancing point as stasis. Sun Tzu's strategy is similar, seeing all strategic positions existing as a balance or stasis between the opposing natural forces of thirty-two pairs of complementary opposites. But this balance is always shifting. For example, our world is changing as the balance between production and competition is shifting in the current era, making the world more competitive than it was a generation ago.

A Limitation of Our Perceptions


When we look at competitive situations, we tend to focus on one half of a balancing pair rather than the whole system. Our strategic challenge is seeing the balancing system instead of whichever of its components is drawing our attention at the moment.

One way to illustrate this concept is using the Necker Cube shown at the top right of this article. When you look at this cube, it has a way of shifting perspective. One face seems to be the front, then another. The concept of complementary opposites says that this is the shifting nature the deeper reality of many elements of competitive situations but people are uncomfortable with this duality so they settle on one way of seeing the complexities of a situation as "correct." This make it difficult for them to correctly compare positions and situations correctly according to Sun Tzu.


problem_necker_cuberFor example, some people look at situations and see problems. This perspective isn't wrong, but it obscures key aspects of any situation. We can also look at the same situation from a different perspective and see it as full of opportunities. Again, this view isn't wrong, but it also is incomplete. To make the label "problem" or "opportunity" work, we must filter out some elements of the situation. In our illustration, we block some of the lines of the cube so it shows one face clearly as the front. In competitive comparisons, we ignore key elements of our position only at our own peril.

The truth of the situation includes all its elements, which require us to master the skill of shifting back and forth, seeing a situation's problems and opportunities as one. To do this, we stop asking ourselves the wrong question, "Which "face" of the situation is correct?" Instead we focus on the situation as a whole, all the elements, and their connections 1.3 Elemental Analysis).

Many Balancing Forces in Sun Tzu's System

There are thirty-two pairs of balancing forces in Sun Tzu's model and many of these individual pairs are interconnected to other pairs. Strategic positions exists in a complex environment of many such balancing forces. We make progress, not by fighting the current balance of forces, but by leveraging these forces to advance our position. These forces include the balance of subjectivity and objectivity, weaknesses and strengths, problems and opportunities, creation and destruction, conflict and cooperation, unity and focus, ground and climate, costs and benefits, decisions and actions, opponents and supporters, facts and opinions, advantages and disadvantages, and many more.

The Nature of Complementary Opposites

Complementary opposites are not simply two separate forces in opposition to one another. They are two halves of a single system, two sides of the same coin. One creates and feeds the other in an endless cycle, like breathing out and breathing in. Each half of the system is necessary and indispensable to the other. Each side not only complements the other but completes it.

Arising from the Yin Yang Philosophy of ancient China, we use the idea of complementary opposites to analyze the dynamics of all competitive systems. Situations changes as the balance between different complementary forces shifts back and forth. Subjective viewpoints create decisions. Decisions necessitate actions, which in turn require new decisions. Less obviously, strength arises from weakness and weakness from strength.

The Dynamics of Balance

The value of complementary opposites is that the concept teaches us to leverage natural forces instead of fighting against them. In seeing the balance of the forces in competition, we avoid the mistake of seeing one half of the system as good and the other opposing half as bad. All systems inherently include both good and bad aspects, benefits and costs. We cannot stop destruction without also stopping creation. We cannot preserve the status quo and still have change for the better.

The dynamics of the competitive environment are created by the shifts back and forth, balancing these forces. Being large, for example, has certain advantages but so does being small. As the size of an organization increases the advantages of size do not increase as fast as its disadvantages. Growth is followed naturally by decline. The same is true off all complementary opposites. No half can remain too dominant for long as the system naturally balances itself.

The Power of the Concept

Sun Tzu's strategy makes situations easier to understand by creating simplified models of inherently complex situations. Dozens of different complementary opposites are used in the mental models of strategy. This models simplify our understanding of the processes so we can think about them more clearly.

Good strategy is possible only by understanding the dynamics of complementary opposites. We cannot fight the forces of nature. We can only take advantage of the opportunities that the larger environment creates. Opportunity creation is only seen clearly through the perspective of the shift between complementary opposites. Over time, these shifts create trends and cycles that we can use to our advantage.

Competitive Arenas: 

Warrior's Rules: