SUN TZU WOULD GO BROKE TODAY
October 3, 2011 24 Comments
I am amazed at how many business people falsely believe that “Business is War”, and how many young managers and MBA students see Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” as being the holy bible for waging business in the same way that one would wage war. I know that Sun Tzu made some very pithy and relevant statements like “Know yourself, know your enemy, win the war”, but how this became an earth shattering business truism is questionable, except maybe for those who look for easy answers to the meaning of business life in books like “The One Minute Manager” and “Who Moved My Cheese”.
Whilst there are some obvious similarities between the business world and that of the military, these are not enough to ensure ultimate success if one was to run a business in the same way that one would conduct a war. For a start, if business really was war, then it would be easy for senior officers from the armed forces to transition into the business world when they retire from military service, which it rarely is.
I have many friends from different branches of the military who had to go back to square one to try to adjust to the business world, despite being at the rank of at least Colonel, Commander or Air Commodore, and who were used to leading large numbers of troops.
War and business are based on winning and beating the opposition and there is nothing wrong with that analogy, but it really doesn’t go much further.
Here are some reasons why …
1. War is based on death.
The power of a military in war is not just based on whether its people are prepared to die for their country, but also on how good they are at making their opposition die for theirs. Business is not based on the body count that you can inflict on your competition, and is never a matter of life and death no matter how many times one uses that analogy to motivate a sales force.
2. War will have dramatic negative impacts on communities, both economically and physically, on both sides of the conflict.
The sacrifices that are made by non-combatants in wars have generally been higher than that made by the military personnel involved. Businesses are there to benefit the communities that they are in from both an economic and a human perspective, and will help to grow and nourish a community. Contrast this with the destructive impact that warring forces have on any community that they come in contact with.
3. In war, your enemy is to be hated and slaughtered at every chance and there is never any thought that there could be advantages to working with your enemy to benefit both sides.
Contrast this with the business world where serious competitors will share technologies in ways that enhance their abilities to succeed, and ultimately deliver choices to the marketplace in which they compete strenuously. One example being that SAP traditionally has always been one of the biggest resellers of the Oracle database. The more successful that SAP is, the more money it has to pay in royalties to its arch rival Oracle. The net result is that both companies benefit and so do their customers.
4. Military management is based on command and control in strict hierarchies and blind obedience.
An order is an order and must be carried out as given, or offenders can face strict punishment, court marshal and even death.
Great businesses thrive on dissension, discussion, creativity and innovation. The “lower ranks” are encouraged to question things and to drive change, and are rewarded for this.
5. In war one of the greatest atrocities that can be committed by any member of the armed forces is to change sides.
In business the movement of personnel from one company to another is part of the lifeblood, maturity and richness of any industry. Some movement is considered advantageous for personal growth and development, and it helps that one can show a reasonable number of different employers throughout ones work history, and to be able to show how each of them helped to create a more rounded and valuable individual.
6. Historically, the army officer corps was made up from the ruling classes, usually the second oldest son of a wealthy family who had little financial future as his elder brother was due to inherit both the title and the property, and therefore leaving him only a choice between the military and the clergy. This meant that wars were generally orchestrated by the in-bred offspring of cousins who had married each other, and times haven’t changed all that much, as officers are rarely built from the ground up, and the lowest ranks are generally made up with those that have little choice. Businesses on the other hand are much more Darwinian. The most successful business people are those who are smart, have learned how to live and succeed within ever changing environments, can manage resources, are visionary and have shown that they have the ability to lead and motivate others.
The problem is that the “Business is War” attitude is not only invalid on its own, it also drives all the wrong behaviour.
It rewards autocrats who believe that they are always right, it stifles innovation by limiting dissent, it sees people as dispensable headcounts and it encourages empire building, hoarding of information and viewing everyone outside the team, division and company as adversaries. Customers are seen as needing to be conquered rather than as business partners, and competition to be crushed rather than being seen as business opportunities.
I have no question that conversely “War is Business” but the belief that “Business is War” is only for the simple minded, and they need to get a wider reading list than Sun Tzu, Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson if they want to succeed in today’s business world.