Sun Tzu on Strategy and Tactics
Hence the saying: One may KNOW how to conquer without being able to DO it. If you feel some empathy for this position, it may be you need to pay more attention to the concepts of Goals, Objectives, Strategy and Tactics. These words are thrown about like confetti, but what do they mean and how are they related? It is so easy to get confused between goals and objectives, strategy and tactics. The first step is to understand what each is and how it relates to the other concepts.
Here are my definitions of the concepts. It is really important that you understand and relate to the words on a conceptual level and not on a definition level. Concepts are flexible flowing, definitions are rigid and fixed. The Art of War deals primarily on concepts that flow and flex using self-contained ideas that can be combined or adapted for successful application. It is not a manual or tick-list on how to win wars and battles.
Goal: a predetermined point, direction or outcome to direct or focus your efforts. When I grow up I want to be a cowboy/ballerina/rich/famous/nurse/doctor etc
Strategy: a detailed plan of action/actions designed to achieve an objective or series of objectives. Our parents advise us to eat our vegetables, study hard and learn manners to be successful.
Objective: specific, measurable, goal-related, strategy influenced milestones that must be achieved in order to reach goal. I planned to arrive early for the interview so I was calm and prepared and did so with minutes to spare.
Tactic: an immediate and specific action or step required to deliver on an objective or strategic outcome. I held my breath and counted to ten so I could remain calm and not lose my job by telling my boss what I really thought of the goal.
There are three main criteria when considering these concepts, time and options. Goals can range from a month to a decade, tactics from seconds to days. Goals can consider hundreds or thousands of options, tactics may be a choice of one, like ‘run’. As you progress through the concepts, it is like water moving through a funnel. Consider this quote from the Art of War: Thus the highest form of generalship is to baulk the enemy's plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy's forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy's army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities. Notice how options are dwindling and time assumes a different flow. Baulking the enemies’ plans engenders plenty of time and options, being besiege offers only an immediate situation with very few options. Reading this sentence, again, is like passing through a funnel. The last criteria is that all should have some flexibility. Sun Tzu says According as circumstances are favourable, one should modify one's plans. If, on the other hand, in the midst of difficulties we are always ready to seize an advantage, we may extricate ourselves from misfortune. Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. So we have three very clear examples of being flexible, of being able to adjust our tactics and strategies to suit our changing circumstances. A good or worthwhile goal should be able to remain constant, everything should be able to change to make the most of changes to your situation. This can mean taking advantage of an unforeseeable break or minimizing any damage as well.
Sun Tzu even gives us a specific formula to follow. In respect of military method, we have, firstly, Measurement; secondly, Estimation of quantity; thirdly, Calculation; fourthly, Balancing of chances; fifthly, Victory. Measurement owes its existence to Earth; Estimation of quantity to Measurement; Calculation to Estimation of quantity; Balancing of chances to Calculation; and Victory to Balancing of chances. This formula can be applied to each concept or four steps. Measurement, estimation, calculation, balancing and then outcome. One leads to another and then back to the beginning. This process can be applied to a specific goal or to overlap several goals. It can be used to measure how the progress of each goal is harmonising with the other goals. Not much is written about these two formula, however if you invest some time into them, the dividends can be very rewarding.
Take the goal of ‘having a great job’. This is a common goal. The strategy could be to attend and pay attention in all classes to achieve the highest marks possible to have a wide choice of careers. Report cards then become the measurement tool to see if we are reaching all out objectives, i.e. passing all classes and grades. The tactic is whatever you have to do now to achieve the objective of passing the next exam or project. If the goal is to drive from one city to another, then the goal can be to arrive somewhere safely. The strategy may include to only drive for specific time periods and to take a specific route. You then can easily measure your progress objectives by time and mileage. Tactics are which turn do I take, can I drive faster, stopping for a rest, meal or purchase petrol.
Being strategic and tactical are skills that have to been learned. Each are separate yet both are needed to make a whole. To learn how to see the micro and macro details needs diligence. To switch between the two appropriately takes practice. Goals, strategies, objectives and tactics consistently change as we age or as situations develop. Sun Tzu also has advice on how to develop our strategic and tactical ability. The consummate leader cultivates the moral law, and strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success. The keys mentioned are method and discipline. Develop a method that works for you and stick to it. By doing so you will not be able to not refine your method over time. You can actually apply this article to understanding on how to improve your strategic and tactical ability.
The last item to address here are the outcomes. Analysing outcomes is the best method of accurately assessing your current ability of being strategic and tactical. Outcomes do not lie. The question to ask is not, did my strategy and tactics work? It is how successful were my strategies and tactics? The reason being is the whole subject of strategy and tactics is so complicated and subtle that you will never stop learning. If one reads the writings of the ancient sages, nowhere will you read that they reached a point that they had totally and utterly mastered the subject matter. To the contrary you will learn that they learned until the day they died. One of their central characteristics was they perpetually reviewed all their outcomes, both big and small. So give yourself a break and simply accept you will never be perfect at this. Simply do the best you can and do your best to learn from your errors. You already use everything spoken about in this article. You have done so even before you heard of the Art of War and Sun Tzu. Now you can improve deliberately.