Blue Ocean Clausewitz – On War and Business

“Read Sun Tsu’s the Art of War.  Every battle is won before it’s ever fought.  Think about it.”  Gordon Gekko quoted in ‘Wall Street’ (Kenneth Lipper, 1988).

The very idea of business strategy may well have had its origins in military strategy, but since the 1980’s it’s been more-or-less expected that up-and-coming fat cats will be able to quote the Art of War, On War and/or the Book of Five Rings, with some even veering off into the Hagakure (‘hidden in the leaves’).  The topic came up again recently in a LinkedIn discussion.

War and business strategy may be based on the same principles, in the sense that they are both about deploying available resources, alliances and supply chains in a given (and thoroughly understood) environment to achieve a decisive competitive advantage, but applying Clausewitz, Sun Tsu and Musashi to modern business strategy is, at best, applying a simplistic metaphor.

There are real doubts for example, about the modern translations of the Go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings) – some heroic assumptions and interpretations have been made by translators to try and create legible text from something that may never have been intended to be intelligible to ‘outsiders’ in the first place.

Even when the translation is more solid, we are usually dealing with concepts which are very specific in their intention (often involving the termination of human life), and certainly were never intended to apply to commerce.  When we in business talk about market conditions as being ‘brutal’, this is not literally true.

Some of the principles of strategic warfare may have analogies in business and corporate strategy.  Some emphatically don’t.  Others provide metaphors which may or may not be useful, and which may or may not fit your business culture (Wall Street, anyone?).  My question would be, given that we have classic works which are specific to commercial strategy (Ansoff, Porter, Christensen, etc), then why spend your time re-interpreting principles which were never intended to apply to commerce in the first place?

Unless, of course, it gives you a competitive advantage…

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