The Art of Strategy

Chapter 6 — Deployment

Erik Schön
Feb 6 · 5 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 6: How to shape competition and avoid being shaped: be first, be invisible, adapt in accord with stakeholders and discover competition’s setup. Relevant doctrine and gameplays. (All chapters).

Sun Tzu

Being first: waiting, vigorous.
Being last: charging, exhausted.

Skilled leadership:
shape competition and avoid being shaped;
attract competition by offering advantages and repel by obstruction;
exhaust vigorous competitors;
curb energised competitors;
move settled competitors;

Appear at places where they rush to defend and rush to places they least expect.

Go far without tiring by moving in areas where competition is not.

For certain success, move where competition cannot defend.
To avoid failure, create resilient positions.

Therefore, against skilled attack, competition does not know where to defend; against skilled defense, competition does not know where to attack.

Subtle beyond subtleties, be formless.
Mysterious beyond mysterious, be soundless.
This shapes competition’s fate.

Advance without delay — engaging the weak.
Retreat without pursuit — too swift to be caught.

When wanting engagement, even with competition protected by high barriers, move towards what competition wants to protect.

When wanting to avoid engagement, even if only protected by a line on the ground, divert competition by being unpredictable.

Discover competition’s setup and remain invisible;
focus while competition disperse to protect many positions.
A focused engagement at a single position severely strains competition.

When keeping the position of engagement unknown, competition needs to prepare to protect many positions:
strengthening the left weakens the right;
strengthening the right weakens the left;
strengthening the back weakens the front;
strengthening the front weakens the back;
strengthening every position weakens every position.

Numerical weakness comes from preparing after being shaped by competition; numerical strength, from shaping competition to make preparations.

Knowing the position and time of engagement, the organization can focus its efforts from the greatest distances.

Not knowing this,
the left cannot help the right and the right cannot help the left;
the front cannot help the back and the back cannot help the front.

How much less so if the organization is separated by thousands of miles, or even one floor!

Even if competition is large, what value is size for success? Conditions for success can be created. Even if competition has more people, engagement can be prevented.

And so, know competition’s strategy; then assess and compare relative strengths and weaknesses:
provoke, to know patterns of movement;
determine setup, to know its viability;
probe, to know which positions are strong and weak.

The ultimate skill is to be formless. If formless, the most penetrating intelligence operation cannot make observations and even the wisest competition cannot make assessments.

The organization is successful thanks to the setup, yet do not understand it. Everyone knows the setup that secured success, yet no one knows how the setup was created.

And so, a strategy for success is not repeatable, it is setup in response to endlessly changing circumstances.

The organization’s setup is like water.

Water avoids the high and rushes to the low; the organization’s setup avoids the strong and rushes to the weak.

Water adapts to the ground when flowing; the organization adapts to stakeholders to succeed.

And so, the organization does not have fixed momentum or constant setup.

Succeed by adapting and changing in accord with stakeholders.

No element dominates for long; no season lasts forever; the sun rises and sets; the moon waxes and wanes.


From A Discourse on Winning and Losing.

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 simpler organisms — those that make up man as well as man working with other men in a higher level context — must cooperate or, better yet, harmonize their activities in their endeavors to survive as an organic synthesis.

To shape and adapt to change one cannot be passive; instead one must take the initiative.

Put more simply and directly: the above comments leave one with the impression that variety/rapidity/ harmony/initiative (and their interaction) seem to be key qualities that permit one to shape and adapt to an ever-changing environment.

Shape Adversary Impression. Arrange elements … in harmony with penchant for humans to generate mental patterns … as basis to guide adversaries to form or project patterns on the environment they are facing. In other words, emphasize certain features so that adversary intelligence, recce, patrols, and other observation activity generate mental pictures of what we seem to be doing. In this sense, we cause adversary to project tempo or rhythm as well as a sense of form or gestalt upon the environment. Naturally, this raises the question: How do we want our posture to appear to an adversary — or put another way, what kind of mental picture do we want him to generate in his mind?


From Wardley Maps.

Doctrine for Adaptability

  • Commit to the direction, be adaptable 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. Crossing the river by feeling the stones.
  • 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.

Gameplays for Shaping

  • First mover: exploiting first mover advantage especially with industrialization to component services.
  • Fast follower: exploiting fast follower advantage into uncharted spaces.
  • Pricing policy: exploiting supply and demand effects including price elasticity, Jevons’ paradox and constraints including fragmentation plays.
  • Fragmentation: exploiting pricing effects, constraints and co-opting to fragment a competitor’s market.
  • Tech drops: creating a “follow me” situation and dropping large technology changes onto the market.
  • Sapping: opening up multiple fronts on a competitor to weaken their ability to react.
  • Misdirection: sending false signals to competitors or future competitors including investment focussed on the wrong direction.
  • Signal distortion: exploiting commonly used signals in the market by manipulation of analysts to create a perception of change.
  • Restriction: limiting competitors’ ability to adapt.
  • Artificial competition: creating two competing bodies to become the focus of competition and in effect driving oxygen out of a market.

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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