Jason Bell
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Sun Tzu, the Art of War and Getting Shit Done

Hello!

This weekend (due to a heavy discount on Audible) I listened to Sun Tzu's The Art of War, the classic treatise on warfare. Yes, I know, I'm cool. I'd read some of it before, as well as other texts from the time period during my undergrad in Politics but this time whilst listening to it (playing Watch Dogs 2 at the same time, another insight to the coolness of my life) it became quite apparent why it's had a resurgence.

Yes, The Art of War keeps popping up as required reading on podcasts for people wanting to coach office psychopaths, but there is actually quite a lot in it which relates to modern life and particularly product development. I know, it could seem a stretch to some but really the principles to getting shit done remain the same. So with the help of Wikipedia (because let's face it when you want to get a high level understanding to a new concept it's still the first port of call to many), I present the 13 treatises of The Art of War and how they relate to product development.

*plays the Immigrant Song*

 

Detail Assessment and Planning (Chinese: 始計) explores the five fundamental factors (the Way, seasons, terrain, leadership, and management) and seven elements that determine the outcomes of military engagements. By thinking, assessing and comparing these points, a commander can calculate his chances of victory. Habitual deviation from these calculations will ensure failure via improper action. The text stresses that war is a very grave matter for the state and must not be commenced without due consideration.

Planning. Planning is incredibly important and needs to be taken seriously. The best way to plan is to understand all factors that may influence the product development process. Yes, it appears that in 5th Century BC Sun Tzu is advocating data driven decisions and that individual actors should only engage in developing products if there's an actual need for them, and if they do so, they must have a plan to achieve it.

Waging War (Chinese: 作戰) explains how to understand the economy of warfare and how success requires winning decisive engagements quickly. This section advises that successful military campaigns require limiting the cost of competition and conflict.

Sun Tzu here outlines the economy of warfare and argues against the long drawn out process of unproductive campaigns. Translated into the product development world it becomes clear that he's advocating a lean model, small team, small costs and cutting down on risks where possible. 

 

Strategic Attack (Chinese: 謀攻) defines the source of strength as unity, not size, and discusses the five factors that are needed to succeed in any war. In order of importance, these critical factors are: Attack, Strategy, Alliances, Army and Cities.

Sun Tzu advocates that strength comes from a united team. Together setting a goal, a small team (as outlined in the economy of warfare) can be incredibly powerful and productive, however their productivity relies on them pulling toward the same goal, knowing what's important and their shared team goal.

Disposition of the Army (Chinese: 軍形) explains the importance of defending existing positions until a commander is capable of advancing from those positions in safety. It teaches commanders the importance of recognizing strategic opportunities, and teaches not to create opportunities for the enemy.

Defence and disposition is important to Sun Tzu but also important in the context of product development. When applying this principle to getting stuff done it can be interpreted to mean that a Product Owner/Manager to make logical decisions and build on things which work to benefit new customers without alienating the existing core base of users. Fortify and satisfy the base before launching on to pastures new.

 

Forces (Chinese: 兵勢) explains the use of creativity and timing in building an army's momentum.

Creative methods of getting shit done really can unite a team. Thinking beyond crunch we're encouraged to build things smarter as opposed to just strive to burn through resource at a faster rate. Keeping a team engaged in an idea and approaching things in creative ways can motivate a team to produce more work at a greater rate. Increase velocity through creative working!

Weaknesses and Strengths (Chinese: 虛實) explains how an army's opportunities come from the openings in the environment caused by the relative weakness of the enemy and how to respond to changes in the fluid battlefield over a given area.

More data driven decisions here from Sun Tzu, you must perform a full competitor analysis before directly attempting to launch against your competition. It also links directly to objectively evaluating your own efforts and defining your products USP compared to similar existing products/services. Is Sun Tzu arguing for a full SWOT analysis? You could argue that he could, the devious time travelling leader.

Military Manoeuvres (Chinese: 軍爭) explains the dangers of direct conflict and how to win those confrontations when they are forced upon the commander.

Advocating lean teams and constant review of the environment allows teams to potentially outmanoeuvre competition however when in direct conflict a team must know how to unite their team and directly take on a competitor. This can be done by referring customers to the product's USP. Knowing your competition puts you in a position to differentiate yourself in the mind of the consumer.

Variations and Adaptability (Chinese: 九變) focuses on the need for flexibility in an army's responses. It explains how to respond to shifting circumstances successfully.

Once again we're back at the benefits of manoeuvrability that comes with small teams, able to pivot and iterate when necessary. Shifting focus on building specific features depending on what matters and what can provide the greatest value is incredibly important. With the user needs at the heart of development teams can build new things together to improve the user experience.

Movement and Development of Troops (Chinese: 行軍) describes the different situations in which an army finds itself as it moves through new enemy territories, and how to respond to these situations. Much of this section focuses on evaluating the intentions of others.

Understand the capacity of your team and their strengths whilst also fully understanding the ways they can best learn and develop new skills. What kind of team are you part of? A reactive or proactive team? One that works best under pressure or one that lays all their work out meticulously? Are they aware of areas they can improve on? Even if they are, are they taking measures to improve that? Understand how your team works and then you're in the best position to utilise it to solve problems.

Terrain (Chinese: 地形) looks at the three general areas of resistance (distance, dangers and barriers) and the six types of ground positions that arise from them. Each of these six field positions offers certain advantages and disadvantages.

Terrain is a practical treatise which can link to how teams approach the tasks in front of them. Thinking about the problem they can determine which is the best way to proceed. This may link to deciding what development language would be best for the team, identifying which potential blockers they may face in their aim of serving a user need. Understanding where your team stands and what their strengths are can maximise the productivity and efficacy of a team.

The Nine Battlegrounds (Chinese: 九地) describes the nine common situations (or stages) in a campaign, from scattering to deadly, and the specific focus that a commander will need in order to successfully navigate them.

Nine Battlegrounds outlines the situations that armies may find themselves in, what we can learn from this is that product teams must be aware of the common pitfalls, blockers and dependencies they may face developing contingency plans for each one. They may run from teams being depleted due to illness or loss or potential difficult engagements with partners or stakeholders. Everything that could go wrong and is likely to go wrong must be at least considered and charted as the team develops their product.

Attacking with Fire (Chinese: 火攻) explains the general use of weapons and the specific use of the environment as a weapon. This section examines the five targets for attack, the five types of environmental attack and the appropriate responses to such attacks.

Weapons! Now at no point am I suggesting you use a bayonet to impale your enemies and competitors to snatch victory from them. Sun Tzu may do, but I'm trying to be practical. What we should learn and utilise from the treatise is that products and their product teams should play to their strengths. Using your advantages you can position your product to be the best solution for user's needs. If you have maintained user needs at the core of your designs you shall have no problem eating in to marketshare. If you have conviction in your product, show no mercy.

Intelligence and Espionage (Chinese: 用間) focuses on the importance of developing good information sources, and specifies the five types of intelligence sources and how to best manage each of them.

Intelligence and espionage you say... Sounds like user research, continued user research throughout product development and launch. Continuing to learn, evaluate and grow using a variety of sources will serve as a great advantage to you and your team.

Looking at the core 13 treatise clear themes develop:

  • Data driven decisions are powerful
  • Learn as much as you can before making irreversible action
  • Keep teams small enough to be agile
  • Iterate often
  • Research research research

 

Well there we go, who thought Sun Tzu would know how to run a product team? That product development could be improved by using war strategies 2,500 years old?