The Art of War (Recommended Translations)
art of war
Categories: art of war
Later today I'll be giving my Personal Agility Canvas presentation for the PMI Agile Community of Practice. In this webinar (like the one I did recently on Redefining your PMO to Support Agile) I'll be referencing Sun Tzu's The Art of War. There are literally hundreds of translations of this classic text. IMHO, the best way to really understand the ideas and tools introduced in the book is to read a number of different translations. After the last session I had a number of requests for which versions of the book I recommend for those who are new to it, so I though I would post them here to save some time.
The Art of War (Pocket Edition) - Thomas Cleary
This is a great starting point. Cleary offers a simple translation that is easy to get through if this is your first time with the text or if you've had trouble with it in the past. He has larger versions that go into more detail and offer more commentary, but this is still my favorite - plus, it's smaller than an iPhone and you can carry it with you everywhere.
The Art of Strategy - R.L. Wing
R.L. Wing introduces each chapter with an explanation that looks at the meaning behind the text on three different levels : Conflict with the Self, Conflict with the Environment and Conflict with Others. For me, this helped open up the way I interpret and use the tools that are presented throughout the text.
Sun Tzu's The Art of War Plus It's Amazing Secrets - Gary Gagliardi
Gary Gagliardi's way of diagramming the tools and explaining how they fit into interaction with others is brilliant and his explanation of the Five Measures is what helped me understand how to apply it in everyday life. I would not start with this one, but if you have a decent grasp of the ideas, this is a must for understanding how to apply The Art of War.
The second chapter of the Art of War begins with Sun Tzu laying out some basics about materials required to wage war. This kind of thing happens quite a bit throughout the book and it can be pretty distracting for Project Managers because our brains have been conditioned to start tracking these as requirements that we'll have to obtain at some point. The run up of all these requirements leads to the statement about the rate of gold per day and the fact that you can't even consider getting an army until you have that covered. The point of all this is to show that in war, there is cost, and that before you can start on the things you think you need to obtain (people to do the work), you first have to account for a whole bunch of hidden costs that you need to address before you go get people.
Bottom line...whether it is war, or a project, getting things done is expensive and there are going to be things that are less obvious or sexy that need to be covered. Before you take anything on, make sure you have a firm grasp of the cost.
"The cost of an interpersonal Challenge is primarily an emotional one. Nonnegotiable conflicts can be very painful, since success generally comes through ending the relationship or changing ti into a very different one. Therefore, careful evaluation and acceptance of the emotional costs of your Challenge are essential to your success."
For Sun Tzu, the cost includes the lives of the soldiers and all the people who are going to have to work so hard to support them. While most project managers are not normally putting team members into direct mortal danger, the cost of the project may mean other projects do not get done... and depending on what choices are made, the business or company could be at risk, which does pose a direct threat to people's ability to work and earn a living and places them in harm's way.
We need to understand the cost of what we take on and what the ramifications of what we are doing are so that we can make responsible, informed a choices while managing the project.
Quotes are taken from The Art of Strategy by R.R. Wing
At the end of the first chapter of the Art of War, Sun Tzu gives direction that may make the strongest case for project management in the entire text.
"Those who triumph,
He goes on to explain that those who spend less time planning do not succeed. According to Sun Tzu, more planning = greater success, less = greater chance of failure and no planning at all pretty much guarantees you have no shot.
The first chapter of the Art of War ends with Sun Tzu claiming that by observing the time spent in "computation" he can determine whether or not one will succeed in their efforts.
From a PM's standpoint, this has relevance on a number of levels. The most obvious application would be to the idea of actually planning out a project, and if you follow the rest of the lessons of the Art of War, this is going to end up bringing in many of the elements included in a traditional project plan. Things like risk planning and developing a communication strategy are critical aspects of Sun Tzu’s formula for success.
One application that might not be so obvious is how this planning can play out on a smaller scale. Something as simple as a business meeting, offers a great opportunity to prove out some of Sun Tzu's claims. If you've ever been in a meeting where you arrived not knowing what was going to happen, or what you were going to say ahead of time, you are probably already all too familiar with the formula for defeat that is mentioned above. For my own part, this is a lesson that took a long time to learn, but over time I have learned that if I make the time for "computation" before a meeting, things go much better. In terms of preparation, working out things like how the Five Measures fit within the context of the meeting, thinking through what will take place based on who is likely to be present, what objectives or motivators they might have, who might say what, how the others in the room will respond, and especially, how to raise the issues I need addressed as well as how to respond to the questions I'm likely to be asked, seems simple but it is unfortunately something most people don’t take the time to do. It may sound like a lot of work, but my experience has been that once you get into a habit of doing it, this tends to come fairly easily. Whatever your goals in the meeting, even if it is just to get through it with your job intact, putting in the time to prepare before hand is just basic risk management. It will give you the freedom to devote the time and attention necessary to cover the things you were not able to think of before hand.
If success in the meeting equals getting your issues addressed without losing credibility, taking the time necessary to be prepared to participate with confidence and ease is just basic risk management, the same as you’d do on any project. And as for the others around the table, as Sun Tzu says, examining they prepare will give you a lot of insight into their ability to succeed or fail once things get underway.
While it can be fairly simple to see how this applies to Project Management, it has a lot of relevance to an Agile approach as well. If taking an Agile approach is intended to offer the freedom to handle constant change while incrementally working towards a desired goal, The Art of War in right in step. The basics of things like forming the team, having the team determine how they will best work together, what the vision statement is, etc. are all part of the “computation” Sun Tzu is talking about. These practices have even greater application later on in the Art of War. In a later section of the book Sun Tzu talks about the need to be fluid and adaptable, in order to do this successfully, someone leading an Agile project, or an Agile team, still needs to take the time to understand the basic concerns mentioned in this chapter.
The bottom line is, success is determined by your ability to make the time to learn about what you are facing and considering what will happen when things get underway.
Or, as President Eisenhower put it, "The plan is useless; it's the planning that's important."
* Quote taken from "The Art of Strategy" by R.L. Wing
The next section of Chapter 1 starts by introducing one of the core strategies of Sun Tzu's teaching. In "The Art of Strategy" by R.L. Wing, the section is translated as:
Heed me by Calculating the advantages
This has a very direct relationship to the strategic work a PM does in that it calls upon the practitioner to measure and understand their true position and then "reinforce" (read as spin or manipulate) the perception of that position by how you represent it.
As he moves into the next section, Sun Tzu provides more clarity into how the perceived reality can be manipulated:
Thus, when able, they appear unable.
In the R.L. Wing translation, this is referred to as the "Tao of Paradox". The instruction is to create a perceived reality that is not necessarily accurate in order to gain advantage. This is "playing dead" or manipulating how we project ourselves and our situation in order to gain the upper hand. There are obvious implications in the context of an armed struggle, but think about it in the setting of a meeting at work, when you pretend to know less than you do in order to either gain more information, or learn more about another's understanding of a situation. Even down to basic interviewing tactics where you lead an interviewee towards an answer you hope to get by pretending you have a problem you have not been able to solve.
This tends to be one of the areas of the text where "nicer" people often get stuck. They perceive this as dishonest or misleading and, rightly so, if they consider themselves to be honest folk, it is something they would not purposely strive for. But beyond a physical conflict context, this is something which all of us do in our daily lives from childhood, often without even being conscious of it. As children we learn to get what we want by creating a sense of urgency that will draw the response we are looking for from our caregivers. While not many PMs would willingly admit to lying to create a false impression, how many would be able to say that they had never added a little spin to a status report to create a more positive impression, or led their team to believe that failure to meet a deadline meant certain doom for their employment, in order to drive the team to getting the work done on time.
As Sun Tzu says, "everyone uses the art of war". The Tao of Paradox is no exception. The question is, is it better or "more honest" to use it absent mindedly, or to understand it as a normal behavior without judging it and learn to be more aware of when and how you make use of this approach so that you can wield it with greater skill and a greater sense of responsibility.
When complete, they appear to prepare.
As this paradox is created, what happens to the "opponent" is that they spend time gathering knowledge, interpreting and planning a response. This creates a window of advantage where, if you have followed the five measures and already have your approach planned, you can seize the moment.
They attack when the opponent is unprepared
As someone managing a project, or a team, you need to be vigilant for those moments when you can achieve the little wins that build trust and drive the efforts toward delivery. The word "attack" is used above, but it does not have to be a negative attack. You can just as easily attack a lack of faith in the project or a negative perception of the team. As leaders, we are often able to have a greater impact when we bring order to the chaos around us if people have already decided that we are caught up in the chaos that has taken hold of them. When done well, this spin can make things look like you have saved the day with relative ease. It can be a double-edged sword, however, because when done poorly, you end up as one of those PMs who create a crisis just to solve it. The idea is not to create drama in the space around you, but take advantage of what is already there to engineer an impression of the situation, and your role in it, that will allow you to gain the position you desire.
R.L. Wing "The Art of Strategy : A New Translation of Sun Tzu's Classic The Art of War" Broadway Books, New York.
MACWORLD PM MEETUP
Having defined that which is to be measured, Sun Tzu provides examples of things to be considered when examining the five measures. He recommends determining which leader has captured the cultural mindset:
And, which has the poitical and organizational advantage:
"Which side has
Who has the strength and rigorous enough approach to discipline to follow the processes they have defined as their path to success.
"On which side
According to Sun Tzu, understanding these will help you "know" victory and defeat. This is an important point to spend some time on. The idea is not that if you study these things, you'll win; but that if you study these things, you will be able to foresee who will win... which leads to a principle introduced later that is (simplified) never take on a battle you have not already won.
Following this thought, if you stick with Sun Tzu, follow his rules, he promises to lead you to victory. If you follow his guidelines, the Art of War will get your back and keep you from harm. However, this is going to include knowing when to back down, when to back away and when to take action in a way that is decisively final. In the workplace, my experience has been that the last part if often more difficult for people to adopt than the backing down. (But there will be much more on this later.)
Sun Tzu also goes on to explain that if you don't adhere to these rules, whether you use the Art of War or not, you've already ensured you will fail. This is another critical point in the Art of War. What Sun Tzu has essentially done is stated that if you stick with him 100%, he'll guarantee success, anything less than that, and you are not using the Art of War and you will fail.
For those familiar with Scrum, this would be "The Art of War, but..." and it has about the same chances of success as "Scrum, but..." more on Scrum, but
This level of commitment is something that appears a number of times throughout the book. It can seem a bit severe when put into practice, but it is something that (IMHO) truly differentiates practitioners of the AOW from those who merely dabble in it. Because war is such nasty business, once you have committed to it, Sun Tzu demands total commitment. At times, this means backing down and at times it can mean pushing further than you might normally. Even taking the time to determine, for yourselves, where the line is in terms of what you are willing to do in order to help the project succeed, can be helpful. As Sun Tzu says, we must know our opposition and ourselves. Often, trick for us as PMs, is to make sure there is a difference between the two.Quotes listed in this entry are taken from John Minford's Penguin Books Great Ideas translation "Sun Tzu The Art of War (Strike with Chaos)" published by Penguin books in 2006. The passage covered in this entry can be found on pages 2 and 3 of the book. If you'd like to purchase a copy, you can do so here.