The Art of Strategy

Chapter 8 — Adaptations

Erik Schön
Feb 20 · 13 min read

What is strategy? Why do you need it? How do you do it? The Art Of Strategy provides timeless answers to these eternal questions. It is a modern reading of Sun Tzu’s Art of War using the lenses of strategists John Boyd and Simon Wardley (swardley). Chapter 8: Need for adaptations in doctrine and leadership when responding to shifting situations. Leadership characteristics that are dangerous if overdone. Leadership and culture for adaptability. Fluidity, resilience and diversity. Relevant climatic patterns and doctrine. (All chapters).

In memory of Martin Burns, fellow improver and curious co-creator of conditions for organisations to be more adaptable.

Sun Tzu

To successfully deploy strategy: agree on purpose with stakeholders; recruit and train people based on purpose and doctrine.

Avoid camping in low-lying areas.
Make alliances in open areas.
Avoid waiting in isolated areas.
Prepare in surrounded areas.
Engage in deadly areas.

There are paths to be avoided.
There are competitors to be avoided.
There are engagements to be avoided.
There are areas to be avoided.
There are purposes to be avoided.

Leadership using adaptations know how to deploy strategy.

Leadership knowing the landscape can only take advantage of it by adapting.

Leadership knowing doctrine can only take advantage of it by adapting.

Skilled leadership consider advantages and disadvantages — and their consequences.
They secure success by avoiding the potential disadvantages of an advantageous situation.
They avoid failure by using the potential advantages of a disadvantageous situation.

Weaken competition with disadvantages;
wear them down with activity;
have them rush after advantages.

This is the art of strategy:
be prepared rather than depending on competition not moving;
be resilient rather than depending on competition not engaging.

The five leadership characteristics are dangerous if overdone:
too much wisdom brings fear that invites containment;
too much trust brings transparency that invites shame;
too much compassion invites worry;
too much courage brings danger that invites failure;
too much strictness brings anger that invites insult.

Too much of even one of these is disastrous since they all cause leadership failure and, ultimately, the end of the organization.

Consider them carefully for all stakeholders — including competition.


From A Discourse on Winning and Losing.

Fast transient maneuvers: Irregular and rapid/abrupt shift from one maneuver event/state to another.

Idea of fast transients suggests that, in order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries — or, better yet, get inside adversary’s observation-orientation-decision-action time cycle or loop.

It is advantageous to possess a variety of responses that can be applied rapidly to gain sustenance, avoid danger, and diminish adversary’s capacity for independent action.

The ability to shift or transition from one maneuver to another more rapidly than an adversary enables one to win in air-to-air combat.

Need adaptability, to cope with uncertain and ever-changing circumstances.
Why adaptability? Adaptability implies variety and rapidity. Without variety and rapidity one can neither be unpredictable nor cope with changing and unforeseen circumstances.

Emphasis upon creation of implicit connections or bonds based upon trust …that permit wide freedom for subordinates to exercise imagination and initiative — yet, harmonize within intent of superior commanders.
Benefit: internal simplicity that permits rapid adaptability.

He who is willing and able to take the initiative to exploit variety, rapidity, and harmony — as the basis to create as well as adapt to the more indistinct — more irregular — quicker changes of rhythm and pattern, yet shape the focus and direction of effort — survives and dominates.

Leadership for Adaptability
Command: refers to the ability to direct, order, compel with or without authority or power.

Control: means to have power or authority to regulate, restrain, verify, (usually against some standard) direct or command. Comes from medieval Latin contrarotulus, a “counter roll” or checklist (contra, against plus rotulus, list).

Command and Control represents a top-down mentality applied in a rigid or mechanical (or electrical) way that ignores as well as stifles the implicit nature of human beings to deal with uncertainty, change, and stress.

Leadership: the art of inspiring people to cooperate and enthusiastically take action toward the achievement of uncommon goals.

Appreciation: refers to the recognition of worth or value, clear perception, understanding, comprehension, discernment, etc.

Nature: Appreciation and leadership permit one to discern, direct, and shape what is to be done as well as permit one to modify the direction and shaping by assessing what is being done or about to be done (by friendlies as well as adversaries).

What does this mean? Appreciation, as part of leadership, must provide assessment of what is being done in a clear unambiguous way. In this sense, appreciation must not interact nor interfere with system but must discern (not shape) the character/nature of what is being done or about to be done; whereas Leadership must give direction in terms of what is to be done also in a clear unambiguous way. In this sense, leadership must interact with system to shape the character or nature of that system in order to realize what is to be done.

Implication: Assessment and discernment should be invisible and should not interfere with operations while direction and shaping should be evident to system — otherwise appreciation and leadership do not exist as an effective means to improve our fitness to shape and cope with unfolding circumstances.

Appreciation and Leadership offer a more appropriate and richer means than Command and Control for shaping and adapting to circumstances.

Culture for Adaptability
How do we generate harmony/initiative so that we can exploit variety/rapidity?

Moral Leverage
A review and further manipulation of the ideas and thoughts that make up these different ways suggest that for success over the long haul and under the most difficult conditions, one needs some unifying vision that can be used to attract the uncommitted as well as pump up friendly resolve and drive and drain away or subvert adversary resolve and drive. In other words, what is needed is a vision rooted in human nature so noble, so attractive that it not only attracts the uncommitted and magnifies the spirit and strength of its adherents, but also undermines the dedication and determination of any competitors or adversaries.

Use moral leverage to amplify our spirit and strength as well as expose the flaws of competing or adversary systems, all the while influencing the uncommitted, potential adversaries and current adversaries so that they are drawn toward our philosophy and empathetic toward our success …

How do we evolve this moral leverage to realize the benefits cited above?

Surface as well as find ways to overcome or eliminate those blemishes, flaws, or contradictions that generate mistrust and discord so that these negative qualities neither alienate us from one another nor set us against one another, thereby destroy our internal harmony, paralyze us, and make it difficult to cope with an uncertain, ever-changing world at large.

In opposite fashion we must:

Emphasize those cultural traditions, previous experiences, and unfolding events that build-up harmony and trust, thereby create those implicit bonds that permit us as individuals and as a society, or as an organic whole, to shape as well as adapt to the course of events in the world.

Intuitive Competence (“Fingerspitzengefühl”)
To flourish and grow in a many-sided, uncertain and ever-changing world that surrounds us suggests that we have to make intuitive within ourselves those many practices we need to meet the exigencies of that world.

We can’t just look at our own personal experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experiences and the strategic world we live in. If we can do this, We will be able to surface new repertoires and (hopefully) develop Fingerspitzengefühl for folding our adversaries back inside themselves, morally-mentally-physically — so that they can neither appreciate nor cope with what’s happening — without suffering the same fate ourselves.

Mutual Trust (“Einheit”)
Without a common outlook, superiors cannot give subordinates freedom of action and maintain coherency of ongoing action.


A common outlook possessed by “a body of officers” represents a unifying theme that can be used to simultaneously encourage subordinate initiative yet realize superior intent.

Arrange setting and circumstances so that leaders and subordinates alike are given opportunity to continuously interact with external world, and with each other, in order to more quickly make many-sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections as well as create the similar images or impressions, hence a similar implicit orientation, needed to form an organic whole.

Message: Expose individuals, with different skills and abilities, against a variety of situations — whereby each individual can observe and orient himself simultaneously to the others and to the variety of changing situations.

Why: In such an environment, a harmony, or focus and direction, in operations is created by the bonds of implicit communications and trust that evolve as a consequence of the similar mental images or impressions each individual creates and commits to memory by repeatedly sharing the same variety of experiences in the same ways.

Beneficial payoff: A command and control system, whose secret lies in what’s unstated or not communicated to one another (in an explicit sense) — in order to exploit lower-level initiative yet realize higher-level intent, thereby diminish friction and compress time, hence gain both quickness and security.

A similar implicit orientation for commanders and subordinates alike will allow them to diminish their friction and reduce time, thereby permit them to exploit variety/rapidity while maintaining harmony/initiative.

Focus and Direction (“Schwerpunkt”)
Schwerpunkt acts as a center or axis or harmonizing agent that is used to help shape commitment and convey or carry out intent at all levels from theater to platoon, hence an image around which:

  • Maneuver of all arms and supporting elements are focused to exploit opportunities and maintain tempo of operations


  • Initiative of many subordinates is harmonized with superior intent.

Schwerpunkt represents a unifying medium that provides a directed way to tie initiative of many subordinate actions with superior intent as a basis to diminish friction and compress time in order to generate a favorable mismatch in time/ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances.

Mission Contract (“Auftragstaktik”)
The German concept of mission can be thought of as a contract, hence an agreement, between superior and subordinate. The subordinate agrees to make his actions serve his superior’s intent in terms of what is to be accomplished, while the superior agrees to give his subordinate wide freedom to exercise his imagination and initiative in terms of how intent is to be realized.

As part of this concept, the subordinate is given the right to challenge or question the feasibility of mission if he feels his superior’s ideas on what can be achieved are not in accord with the existing situation or if he feels his superior has not given him adequate resources to carry it out. Likewise, the superior has every right to expect his subordinate to carry out the mission contract when agreement is reached on what can be achieved consistent with the existing situation and resources provided.

… exploit lower-level initiative yet realize higher-level intent, thereby diminish friction and reduce time, hence gain both quickness and security.

Mental Agility (“Behendigkeit”)
An entropy increase permits both the destruction or unstructuring of a closed system and the creation of a new system to nullify the march toward randomness and death.

People using theories or systems evolved from a variety of information will find it increasingly difficult and ultimately impossible to interact with and comprehend phenomena or systems that move increasingly beyond and away from that variety — that is, they will become more and more isolated from that which they are trying to observe or deal with, unless they exploit the new variety to modify their theories/systems or create new theories/systems.

We can’t just look at our own personal experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experiences and the strategic world we live in. If we can do this we will be able to surface new repertoires and (hopefully) develop a Fingerspitzengefühl for folding our adversaries back inside themselves, morally-mentally-physically — so that they can neither appreciate nor cope with what’s happening — without suffering the same fate ourselves.

By example, leaders (at all levels) must demonstrate requisite physical energy, mental agility, and moral authority to inspire subordinates to enthusiastically cooperate and take initiative within superior’s intent.

‘Willingness to support and promote unconventional or difficult subordinates who accept danger, demonstrate initiative, take risks, and come up with new ways toward mission accomplishment’


From Wardley Maps.

When you consider a business it is a living thing. It consists of a network of people, a mass of different activities and reserves of capital including financial, physical, human and social. It consumes, it produces, it grows and it dies. Like all organisms, any business exists within a community of others, an ecosystem. It competes and co-operates for resources and it’s shaped by and shapes its environment. Even within a business, people come and go. The things we do, the things we build and the things that others desire change over time. All firms are in a constant state of flux and the ecosystem it lives within never stands still … A business, like all organisms, needs to continuously adapt to changes in order to survive.

Resilience and fluidity through diversity for adaptability (Simon Wardley, swardley).

A fluid system is one with low engineering resilience but high ecological resilience. Though elements of the system can be considered fragile (operating within limited constraints or occupying a niche), the system itself adapts rapidly to changing circumstances i.e. the efficiency of function might decline rapidly due to a change but the function continues to exist. Many biological ecosystems can be considered fluid and the process of change is known as evolution e.g. adaptation of a species to some new predator or environmental catastrophe.

A resilient system is one with high engineering and ecological resilience. Not only is the system capable of coping with a wide variety of physical extremes, the entire system rapidly adapts to a changing environment in order to exist. Nature in its entirety can be considered resilient and it has become so through the process of evolution. Nature consists of many biological ecosystems occupying niches and any change in physical conditions enables one biological ecosystem to invade the space of another. The efficiency and survival of life is preserved bar the most catastrophic of shocks.

This last point is critical. It is evolution through competition and a changing environment that has made Nature itself resilient. Evolution is driven by competition and far from the gradual and peaceful concept that abounds in literature, it involves the entire annihilation of species and individual biological ecosystems in a violent orgy of death throughout history. Species have evolved mechanisms to survive this orgy of death. Your body builds muscle because of constant exercise but burns that same muscle during starvation — it’s all part of our bodies energy management that has evolved to cope with change. Even death itself is a necessity to evolution and self replication with constrained resources.

However, a consequence of this orgy has been diversity and whether it is diversity between or within species, this is a critical element of ecological resilience. Lack of diversity is often a major weakness of classical engineering systems through systemic failure. If you want to create a system that is capable of adapting to constant change, is resilient to the unknown and has the best shot at longevity as a whole then nature is a past master at this. Learn from life itself.

Climatic Pattern for Adaptation
No choice on evolution. As components within your value chain evolve then unless you can form some sort of cartel and prevent any new entrants then some competitors will adapt to use it whether utility computing, standard mechanical components, bricks or electricity. The benefits of efficiency, faster creation of higher order systems along with new potential sources of worth will create pressure on others to adapt. As more adopt the evolved components then the pressure on those who remain in the “old world” increases until it is overwhelming. In the figure below, a company (in grey) adapts creating pressure on all the others to adapt. As more adapt, the pressure on the remaining companies increase.

Climatic Pattern: No choice on evolution (Simon Wardley, swardley).

This effect is known as Van Valen’s “Red Queen Hypothesis” and it is the reason why we don’t see your average company building its own generators from scratch to supply their own electricity. There exists a secondary impact of the Red Queen which is it limits one organization (or in biology one organism) from taking over the entire environment in a runaway process. If for example, only Ford had ever introduced mass production with every other good being entirely hand-made then not only every car would be a Ford today but so would every TV, every Radio and every Computer. However, those practices spread and other industries adapted hence the advantage that Ford created was diminished.

Doctrine for Adaptation
There is no core. Everything is transient, whatever you think is core to your company won’t be at some point in the future. The only things that are truly static are dead.

Commit to the direction, be adaptive along the path. Once you’ve set a direction commit to it. There will often be hurdles and obstacles but don’t just simply abandon a direction because a single step is challenging. Try to find paths around the obstacles. If you’re building a system and a common component is not as expected then that can often prove a market opportunity.

All Chapters

Chapter 1 — Assessments
Chapter 2 — Challenges
Chapter 3 — Success
Chapter 4 — Setup
Chapter 5 — Momentum
Chapter 6 — Deployment
Chapter 7 — Engagement
Chapter 8 — Adaptations
Chapter 9 — Movements
Chapter 10 — Landscape
Chapter 11 — Situations
Chapter 12 — Disruption
Chapter 13 — Intelligence
Annex — Wardley Mapping Examples


This is provided as Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International by the author, Erik Schön.

Erik Schön

Written by

Hacker turned software researcher turned system engineer turned manager, leader & navigator; developing people, teams & organizations in complex, multi-site R&D

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