The Shape of Progress: Cycles within Cycles

The purpose of this article is to discuss some of the more interesting aspects of Sun Tzu's Progress Cycle. The progress cycle is the basic method for advancing a strategic position.

It is the shorthand we use to describe the steps of listening, aiming, moving and claiming. It is also a way of organizing an array of strategic techniques into different categories. There are listening techniques, aiming techniques, and so on.

One of the most interesting aspect of the Progress Cycle is that it is scalable. It steps apply both to long-term campaign and to addressing the very small scale advances we attempt to make every day. Each "step" in the cycle can also be broken down into smaller cycles. The purpose of this article is to look at useful ways of breaking down the steps in the Progress Cycle for easier understanding.

Complementary Opposition in Action

We usually illustrate the steps of the Progress Cycle, listen-aim-move-claim, as a cycle, with each new claim step leading back into a new listening step. Classical Chinese philosophy saw all of nature as consisting of repeating cycles. It also saw each cycle as the completion of two complementary and opposite phases. The general concept of Sun Tzu's complementary opposites defines many elements of Sun Tzu's strategy. The Progress Cycle is complementary opposition in action.

The easiest way to illustrate this idea is from examples in nature. Our breathing cycle requires both inhaling and exhaling. The time cycle requires both day and night, summer and winter. So each cycle is a combination of two opposing movements, that, like a pendulum, swing from one extreme to the other creating balance.

The Progress Cycle can be broken down into opposite phases in many different ways. The Claim and Listen are the input steps, while the Aim and Move are the output steps. We can also think of them as the income steps and the expense steps.

However, there are smaller cycles within this big cycle. Each step consists of its own set of complementary opposites. Generally speaking, we can think of each step as its own little cycle of expansion. During the expansion phase, it reaches out to get a broader perspective, followed by a period of a contraction, narrowing in and focus and power.

Another analogy for the Progress Cycle is the two-cylinder, four-cycle engine. In the expansion phase, an engine brings in its fuel. Then it goes into compression phase, that concentrates and explodes the fuel, leading to the next expansion phase.

In the Listening step, we listen to a broadly as we can outside the organization and then bring those ideas to listen inside the organization narrowing our discussion to finally it comes to one decision-maker.

In the Aiming step, the decision-maker examines all possible moves identified by listening and applying the rules of aim to narrow down those possibilities to the best one for now.

In the Moving step, our actions encounter a wide variety of conditions that make up the situation in the environment for which we must instantly choose the one, right appropriate response.

In the Claiming step, we look at as many of the results as we can before we narrow to make our claim.

Varied Cycles within The Progress Cycles

Of course, as we have already said,

each "step" in the Progress Cycle can also be broken down into series smaller cycles of listen, aim, move, claim. This gets interesting because each smaller step retains its essential character, but the best order for the steps may change. The standard form of "listen-aim-move-claim" works in larger scale situations, but it tends to get shuffled when breaking down the steps in the cycle itself. All four sub-steps are still needed to complete the step, usually in multiple iterations, but the order of the steps may and sometimes should vary.

For example, a single listening step can be broken down into separate listen-aim-move-claim sub-steps. We can describe these sub-steps in the following way:

  • Listen: uncritical, attentive listening
  • Aim: determining what additional information we want
  • Move: asking a question
  • Claim: feeding back what we hear

While the "standard" listen-aim-move-claim sequence is okay, a listen-claim-aim-move order usually makes more sense. We listen. Then we feedback what we heard. Then we decide what we want to learn more about, and then we ask our next question.

Competitive Arenas: