In French, the skill of rapid strategic cognition is called "coup d'oeil," the "power of the glance." This is what the French called Napoleon's ability. The good news is that this form of trained strategic reflexes can be taught from mental simulations, mental models that have moving parts almost like a machine.1
Studies into how people use mental simulations started with studies of chess masters by Andre De Groot in 1946. An examination of seventy-nine studies of mental simulations demonstrated that these mental simulations cannot be very complicated. Generally, they can consist of no more than six steps and three moving parts. More complicated models are difficult for people to remember and manipulate in their minds. Simpler models, however, fail to capture important elements of the situation. As Albert Einstein said, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."
For the purposes of training our strategic reflexes, Sun Tzu created a series of such mental simulations all at approximately the right level of complexity. His construct for understanding a strategic position has five elements, but only three of them "moving" (though one of them, "the ground" is also moved upon). His model for advancing a position has four steps. And, of course, many of his models are simple recognition-primed decisions: if this situation then this response where the response takes the form of a single step, and the complexity is in recognizing the specific pattern.
Another key to building useful mental model is to work at the right level of abstraction.2 Models that are too general are more broad but more difficult to apply, but more specific models apply to only a smaller number of cases. Sun Tzu bridges this gap by providing general, easily memorable models, such as the five-element model, with a large number of very specific applications: five character qualities, five types of spies, five character flaws, and so on.
Since mental simulations tend to explain away disconfirming evidence3, Sun Tzu design his simulations as alternatives to more obvious analytical models. For example, the most obvious way to model an army is in terms of troop sizes, arrangement, equipment, and armament, that is, e.g., as a phalanx or a cavalry. His purposefully chose a level of abstraction the omitted the types of details always covered by more process-oriented simulations. This design feature allows his simulations to be used as a cross check for other, more objective analytical methods. This creates what the researcher Marvin Cohen calls "snap back," an alternative viewpoint bringing decisions back into sync with reality.
This is important because research into the use of mental simulation shows that they often fail because people are too confident in them4. Sun Tzu recognizes this explicitly. He says that all results in competitive environments are stochastic not deterministic. Every approach often fails, but some approaches fail less often than others. This is especially important because the more objective methods, which propose to be deterministic, were in his view extremely risky.
Because Sun Tzu's mental simulations can be written down and charted out on paper, they can change the way people think. They can be used to develop what the researcher Pierre Wack called "decision scenarios" for the specific purpose of training5. Unlike conventional plans and forecasts, decision scenarios aren't built to provide the answers but to give people a sense of the forces at work. As Wack wrote:
"Scenarios must help decision makers develop their own feel for the nature of the system, the forces at work within it, the uncertainties underlying the alternate scenarios, and the concepts useful in interpreting key data."
There are only two ways to develop the right instincts for making good decisions under competitive pressure: through the learning and use of mental simulations or through the trial and error of experience. While nothing replaces experience, a proven mental model can help you apply that experience with greater understanding. This is the advantage of Sun Tzu's system.
1 Klein & Crandall, 1995, "The role of mental simulations in naturalistic decision-making," Local Applications of the Ecological Approach to Human-Machine System, Erlbaum
2 Klein, The Sources of Power, 1999
3 Cohen, 1997, "Training the Naturalistic Decision-Maker", Naturalistic Decision Making, Erlbaum
4 Hirt & Sherman, 1985, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
5 Pierre Wack, 1985, Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead, & Scenarios: Shooting the Rapid, Harvard Business Review