Steps Towards Business Agility

The Art of Strategy: Shaping

6. How to shape and avoid being shaped

Photo: Marian Kroell on Unsplash

What is strategy? Why do you need it? How do you do it? And, how can you be more certain to succeed? 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). All parts. Other reading formats.

Sun Tzu

Being first: waiting for competition, vigorous.
Being last: charging into engagement, exhausted.

Skilled leadership shape competition and avoid being shaped:
attract by offering advantages;
repel by obstruction;
exhaust the vigorous;
curb the energised;
move the settled;
appear at places where they rush to defend;
rush to places they least expect;
go far without tiring by moving into empty areas.

For certain success, prevent knowledge of where to defend.
To avoid failure, prevent knowledge of where to attack.
Therefore, against skilled attack, competition are at a loss where to defend;
against skilled defense, at a loss where to attack.

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

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

When wanting engagement,
even with competition protected by high barriers,
move towards what competition want 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 formless;
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 need 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.

Weakness comes from preparing after being shaped by competition.
Strength comes from shaping competition to make preparations.

Knowing the position and time of engagement,
the organization can focus its efforts from the greatest distance;
the left can help the right and the right can help the left;
the front can help the back and the back can help the front.
This is impossible if 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.

Scrutinize competition to develop a successful strategy:
provoke, to know movements and reasons;
expose setup, to know its viability;
probe, to know strengths and weaknesses.

The ultimate setup is to be formless:
the most prying intelligence operation are unable to observe it;
the most skillful competitors are unable to assess it.
Exploit competition’s setup for success; keep everyone unaware.
Everyone observes the success, yet are unaware how it was created.

And so, a strategy for success is unrepeatable;
it is setup in response to endlessly changing circumstances.

水 (Shuǐ) Water. Calligraphy © Hisayo Oki

The organization is like water.

Water avoids the high and rushes to the low; the organization avoids strength and rushes to weakness.

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

Water constantly changes form; the organization constantly changes setup.

Succeeding by adapting and changing in accord with stakeholders is the skill of skills.

The elements are in flux;
the seasons pass;
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.

The Art of Strategy: All Parts

Contents: A very short summary of each part
Introduction: What is strategy and why do you need it?

  1. Assessments: How to assess, prepare and shape
  2. Challenges: How to use and reduce inertia, entropy and friction
  3. Success: How to succeed together with stakeholders
  4. Setup: How to create resilience
  5. Momentum: How to use creativity, focus and timing
  6. Shaping: How to shape and avoid being shaped
  7. Engagement: How to engage using surprise
  8. Adaptations: How to adapt to shifting situations
  9. Movements: How to move to optimize momentum
  10. Landscape: How to approach difficult areas
  11. Situations: How to handle difficult situations
  12. Disruption: How to disrupt and avoid being disrupted
  13. Intelligence: How to use intelligence to create foreknowledge

Annex: Wardley Mapping Examples
Glossary: Explanation of key terms and symbols
Acknowledgements: Standing on the shoulders of giants
Sources: Where to learn more
Other reading formats: Hardcover, paperback and PDF

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

Wardley Mapping is provided courtesy of Simon Wardley (swardley) and licensed as Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.



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Erik Schön

From hacker, software researcher and system engineer to leader, executive and strategizer. Writer: #ArtOfLeadership #ArtOfStrategy