Like Homer, little is known of Sun Tzu, the Chinese general of the Warring States period who wrote The Art of War between 400 BC and 320 BC. But it has long been a reference in strategy making and a subject for business schools.
Having an abridged version of The Art of War myself, it was with happy anticipation that I purchased Sun Tzu and The Project Battleground by David E. Hawkins, a construction project manager, and his co-author Shan Rajagopal, a business consultant. But the authors seem to have lacked sympathy for the old Chinese general, and the commentaries added after each pithy Sun Tzu quote tend to be foggy and unhelpful.
Hawkins and Rajagopal fail again and again to apply the old general's doctrines to business models. They write poorly in halfhearted generalities, often off-topic and at odds with what Sun Tzu had just said.
Readers will be forgiven for coming away with an impression that modern business people have little to learn from Sun Tzu or his military principles. Admittedly, there is no universal transfer from one mode to the other, and military forces are usually more focused on zero-sum gain – I win, you lose – than the win-win philosophy which is currently in vogue.
What day-to-day military thinking adds to business is the distillation of operational elements, so managers are mentally freed from extraneous detail. American gas stations, for example, sell everything from burgers to hairspray, so it is easy for a manager to forget that he's there to sell gasoline. Military thinking boils it down to time, resources and objectives. In this, business and the military are in concert and Sun Tzu has much to teach.
What Hawkins and Rajagopal basically lack is imagination, and one suspects also a lack of will to translate Sun Tzu's harsh prin-ciples into modern business terms. Granted, it must have been a challenge to apply one Sun Tzu quotation cited: "If secret news is divulged by a spy before the time is ripe, he must be put to death together with the man to whom the secret is told."
Still, there could have been a better conclusion than the one offered, to wit:
"In developing major projects, the costs are high and often information that simply advises against following particular invest-ments can be very valuable. Deciding which projects to pursue is a tough task so even negative intelligence can create value. The skill in using this information chain is being able to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, ensuring that efforts are projected towards potential success."
What makes Sun Tzu acceptable today in a way Niccolo Machiavelli, is not, is that the old Chinese general contains one socially redeeming view: that it is best to have a strategy that is so well executed that victory is assured without bloodshed. But this social camouflage obscures the fact that business can be brutal. Prepare for war; enjoy peace, said the Romans, who built the best killing machine the world had ever known, the very sight of which induced pacific intentions in rivals. Without the war machine, the Romans could not have won the peace. And that escapes Hawkins and Rajagopal.
Not knowing much about the construction business, to which the authors foggily refer, I am unable to provide missing examples to illustrate their lackluster commentaries. Yet I could easily find ones in my own publishing field where paper tigers battle it out in ways entirely suitable to Sun Tzu-like analysis.
The book is handsome, has the right structural approach, but sadly lacks the content to do what it sets out to do. Given these faults perhaps businessmen could best make use of it by making it a gift to rivals, telling them how wonderful it is. At least that would please the old general.
Sun Tzu and the Project Battleground by David E. Hawkins and Shan Rajagopal, published by Palgrave Macmillan, 240 pages, US$45 from Amazon.
Excerpt: Hawkins and Rajagopal on Sun Tzu
All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when we are far away we must make him believe we are near. [Sun Tzu]
As we have already considered, the project world – as with many areas of business – can be very complex. Once a business strategy is in the public domain one is generally forced to take a reactive position. It is therefore essential that one maintains maximum confidentiality for as long as possible. In large global projects, this is often difficult as these projects span operations around the world and often require external partners. The same can be said of many internal projects where the development may have an impact on sectors of the organization or perhaps a long-term external edge.
It is common for the true nature of business ventures to be veiled with false messages or indicators. Customers have developed products while in fact planning some completely different scheme. For project sales people this becomes a major issue when trying to establish which project to follow.
The procurement environment is often equally challenging is this respect where selections have already been made, but the market is played either to confuse or to aid negotiations. It is a risky ploy because once established as a methodology, future support may be restricted or less valuable.
In general, the concept of keeping the opponent in an unprepared state is easy to convert to many different applications in the winning and execution of projects.