Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is a book nominally about, well, war. It’s kind of deceptively titled though. A more accurate title would be “The Art of Not Going to War Unless You Really Can’t Avoid It And Then Still Avoiding Fighting as Much as Possible.” That’s a bit of a mouthful, so probably best to stick the original, but you get the point.
The Art of War applies to competition and conflict in general, on every level from the interpersonal to the international. Its aim is invincibility, victory without battle, and unassailable strength through understanding the physics, politics, and psychology of conflict.
Though it can be abused, war is a helpful metaphor to think about conflict because the stakes for being right are really high. Your company being outcompeted by a competitor stinks, but your country being invaded and decimated and many people dying is like way, way worse so there’s a big incentive to get the strategy right.
What does getting it right look like? The central metaphor of Sun Tzu’s work is water.
A military force has no constant formation, water has no constant shape. The ability to gain victory by changing and adapting according to the opponent is called genius.”
Genius, in Sun Tzu’s explanation, is to behave like water. Water is strong offensively and defensively.
If you are standing in the ocean as the waves come at you, punching or pushing at the wave is a strictly futile effort, the water simply redirects around you to the points where you are weak. You can neither strike it offensively nor resist it defensively. It flows away from where you are strong to wherever you are weak.
When the victorious get their people to go to battle as if they were directing a massive flood of water into a deep canyon, this is a matter of formation. When water accumulates in a deep canyon, no one can measure its amount, just as our defense shows no form. When the water is released it rushes down in a torrent, just as our attack is irresistible.”
Water is at once full of power and empty of form, impossible to attack and impossible to resist.
This metaphor has been echoed by many other strategists. Bruce Lee when talking about his fighting style famously said:
You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
This sounds pretty badass but it’s not intuitively obvious to me how I would operate differently in my life or business or investments by “becoming like water.”
As I was reading through The Art of War, I thought of the work of John Boyd, another military strategist most famous for his idea of the OODA Loop. OODA is an acronym standing for:
The OODA loop is often seen as a decision-making model but can be more accurately described as a model of individual and organizational learning and adaptation. It is a model initially developed for military strategy, but is more broadly applicable.
Boyd’s primary focus of study for strategy was the German Blitzkrieg.
Before the Second World War, German generals had gone back and studied earlier military strategists and designed the blitzkrieg style to emulate the maneuver warfare styles of Sun Tzu and Genghis Khan rather than the attrition style of World War I.
World War I had been a long, protracted series of trench warfare. It was less like flowing water and more like banging stones. The Blitzkrieg strategy employed by the Germans was much more fluid and embodied many of Sun Tzu’s principles.
There were three central concepts to the Blitzkrieg that Boyd studied: Schwerpunkt, Einheit and Fingerspitzengefühl.
Schwerpunkt literally translates as center of gravity or emphasis.
In military terms, it is usually the geographic point of attack.
In non-military terms, it is probably best understood as focus or the main priority. Having a clear focus, and emphasizing that over any particular tactic, empowers those around you to make decisions for themselves instead of having to run everything by you.
Facebook kept the number of users on huge TV screens around their office for many years. Everyone knew that when they were faced with a decision, they should make whatever decision caused that number to go up.
Einheit translates to something like “mutual trust.”
The German Blitzkrieg commander Heinz Gaedcke explained that one of the essential reasons for the success of the Blitzkrieg was that the German commanders all trusted each other implicitly. They had a relationship where they could look at each other in the eye and know exactly what needed to be done without speaking.
Fingerspitzengefuhl translates literally as a fingertip feeling but is most easily understood as intuitive skill or intuitive knowledge.
A good military commander that has trained well can pattern match in real-time which looks to others like an intuitive feeling for how to manage the battle. The German tank commanders could see where the enemy was weak and know to focus their efforts there. Similarly, good business leaders are able to draw on their experience to know where to focus their effort and resources.
If you have all three of these together, it looks very much like flowing like water. During the German blitzkrieg (which reached Paris in an astoundingly short time), you had all these factors operating together.
Your commanders have Fingerspitzengefuhl, a fingertip feeling, which allows them to sense where a weak point is in the enemy lines pops up.
This weak point becomes the Schwerpunkt or center of focus for the German troops.
Other troops quickly flow to this weak point because they trust their fellow soldiers (Einheit). This lets them break through the enemy lines, forcing the enemy to retreat and regroup.
If you were to look at how these troop movements behaved from a top-down, it would look a lot like flowing water. Little droplets (small groups of troops) probe each point of the enemy’s lines. When they start to sense a weak point and a small breakthrough happens, water (troops) from elsewhere flow towards the weak point. This causes it to weaken further.
Eventually, they fully breakthrough and the rest of the troops flow through the wide hold in the enemy’s lines.
Then the enemy retreats to try and form a new line and the same process repeats. Little probes eventually find a weak point and the rest of the forces flow through. The German troops were flowing like water, moving through the enemy lines at the point of least resistance.
From the enemy’s perspective, it is like trying to fight with the ocean. Wherever they strike, you fade away, flowing towards the point of least resistance.
Sun Tzu talks about this in terms of emptiness and fullness. Where they strike, you are empty. But, where you strike, there is fullness that “punches” through.
The psychological outcome of this flowing like water is a feeling momentum. When you flow like water, you are going where the momentum takes you and so you have the momentum behind you.
Having spent a decade advising and working with hundreds of companies across many different industries, I would say there is basically nothing more important to a company’s success than momentum.
When an army has the force of momentum, even the timid become brave; when it loses the force of momentum, even the brave become timid.
When a company has momentum, it seems like everyone is good at their job. Getting in a habit of winning consistently and following momentum is incredibly valuable. One way to lose momentum is to try and do too much. Often projects get scoped too big and drag on for too long, losing momentum.
When you do battle, even if you are winning, if you continue for a long time it will dull your forces and blunt your edge; if you besiege a citadel, your strength will be exhausted. If you keep your armies out in the field for a long time, your supplies will be insufficient.
Good managers and companies don’t let projects drag on. They seize momentum and ship quickly.
Good companies also cut their losses quickly. If you start an initiative and it doesn’t get momentum fast, get rid of it.
When your forces are dulled, your edge is blunted, your strength is exhausted, and your supplies are gone, then others will take advantage of your debility and rise up. Then even if you have wise advisers you cannot make things turn out well in the end.
Therefore I have heard of military operations that were clumsy but swift, but I have never seen one that was skillful and lasted a long time.
Speed and momentum are the killer forces in all competitive environments and the notion to “become like water” is about how to get those on your side.
In his 2016 letter to shareholders, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos gave similar advice:
Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.”
In Sun Tzu’s terms, seizing the momentum is more important than being right. If you are wrong, you simply stop change and flow towards wherever the weakness is. Water doesn’t know the exact path it will take, it just worries about flowing downhill.
Boyd also focused on the idea of momentum, Getting inside your adversary’s OODA loop is done by executing what he called “fast transients,” WTF moments designed to make your adversary feel trapped in an unpredictable world of doubt, mistrust, confusion, disorder, fear, panic, and chaos.
The “transient” is the change between maneuvers. The ideal fast transient is an abrupt, unexpected, disorienting change that causes the other side to say “What the f**k!”
Boyd was a renowned dogfighter because he would create disorienting, WTF moments by engaging in an unexpected maneuver, and by the time the other pilot was able to re-orient, it was too late.
Similarly, good leaders seize momentum. When they see an unexpected source of momentum, they don’t think “that’s not in the plan,” they think “this is the new plan.”
One of the most useful questions I ask myself as part of my weekly review is “What were the 3 biggest wins or unexpected sources of momentum and how can I double down on them.” This is basically the idea of flowing to the point of least resistance, being like water.
This is particularly important because market structure is always changing. Tactics that work right now may not work next year and so it’s important to seize the momentum today.
I think businesses can copy this idea of being like water by employing Boyd’s ideas of schwerpunkt, fingerspitzengefuhl, and einheit.
Indeed, these are the core jobs of a good leader. The leader looks for the most important focus for the company (schwerpunkt) using their intuitive feeling for the market (fingerspitzengefuhl) and then build a culture of mutual trust (einheit) that enables everyone to work in sync.
The leader also knows when to defer to the fingerspitzengefuhl of their team and let them be the ones that run with something when they have a better fingertip feeling rather than trying to micromanage.
Become like water my friend.
Last Updated on July 13, 2020 by Taylor Pearson