Creation and Destruction of Sun Tzu's Elements

Competitive Arenas: 

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.

The Five Elements were arranged in a circle to show the "Creation Cycle" as a pentagram. Water, in the lower left, creates wood by growing trees. Wood creates fire. Fire creates earth by transforming wood to ash. Earth creates metal, which is why metal is mined from the earth. Metal creates water, which was seen by the Chinese are the condensation of water on metal surfaces.

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. The "destruction cycle" is also sometimes called the "control" cycle because the actions described are not "destruction" as much as they are "control." Water destroys or controls fire. Fire destroys or controls metal by melting it. Metal destroys or controls wood by cutting it. Wood destroys or controls earth by displacing it and absorbing it with its roots. Earth destroys or controls water by absorbing or channeling it.

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.

The creation cycle can be again be shown as a cycle in a pentagram. In Sun Tzu's system. Methods creates new ground because technology opens entirely new areas for exploration. The internet is an example of this phenomena that I use frequently in presentations. Ground creates climate as each new area develops its own patterns of change. Climate creates mission, as change makes new philosophy and goals possible. Mission creates command, a new philosophies allow the rise of new leaders. Command creates methods as the decision of leaders lead to the creation of new methods.

Using the same position of elements, the "destruction" or "control" cycle appears as the star pattern. But notice that the star reverses all the flows in the original. Methods destroy mission as processes take on a life of their own (which is why Sun Tzu warns us that methods must follow mission). Mission destroys ground as philosophy makes certain areas taboo. Drilling in Anwar is a good example. Ground destroys command because choosing the wrong ground destroys commanders. Napoleon lost at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington's boyhood home. Command destroys climate by poisoning attitudes and confidence in leadership. Examples are too numerous to mention.

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 think about the creation cycle, we can see that the arrows also indicate the flow of time, energy, and other resources. Through our methods, we invest our resources in developing the ground. The flow of productivity from the ground goes into creating the climate. The flow of energy from changes of climate is channeled into mission. The flow of goals from mission creates the focus of command. The flow of time and energy from the decisions of command go into creating new methods.

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.