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Applying Sun Tzu’s Art of War for Creativity and Innovation

By: Becky Sheetz-Runkle
Last updated 9/23/2014

The Art of War is the military classic written by the Chinese philosopher-general and military strategist, Sun Tzu, around 500 B.C. Concise and direct, this work of just 7,000 words has had profound influence the world over. It has influenced Eastern military and business thinking. In the West, the book’s popularity continues to grow as managers and leaders increasingly seek to apply its principles to their business challenges.

In a statement packed with solid management advice, Sun Tzu advised, “Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack him where he has taken no precautions.” The most significant point for the purpose of creative execution is the idea of making your way by “unexpected routes.”

These four lessons from Sun Tzu can guide you in developing and applying creativity to seize advantages.

Understand Circumstances to Position Creativity
Knowledge is the strategic foundation of applying creativity. You can’t examine and push the norms of your business or industry without understanding the movements of others. To “make your way by unexpected routes,” you need to understand your strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of your opponents. You must be able to anticipate the movements of competitors and have a full picture of a plethora of battlefield conditions.

This knowledge is imperative for Sun Tzu, who said in one of his most oft-quoted passages: "Know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat." You can’t make your way by unexpected routes if you don’t understand the paths your competitors have taken. Of even greater importance is the intelligence to anticipate the paths they will take.

Acknowledge Limitations
Creativity is often born from necessity. With limited budgets and resources, nimble and forward-thinking organizations find unexpected ways to rise above the clutter of their competitors and be recognized by their customers. Sun Tzu believed that strength is about much more than size and resources. As he said, “In war, numbers alone confer no advantage.” You can overcome even daunting obstacles by being more innovative.

Sun Tzu recognized the limitations of resources. To that end, he offered direction on maximizing the potential of an army: “Generally, in battle, use the normal force to engage and use the extraordinary to win. Now, to a commander adept at the use of extraordinary forces, his resources are as infinite as heaven and earth, as inexhaustible as the flow of the running rivers.”

The applications for management are significant if they are sought. Regardless of how many long hours your team works, they will always have a limited amount of time and energy to produce. Human energy is eminently finite. Sun Tzu advises to use extraordinary ability in matters that call for them, and normal energy when the extraordinary isn’t a benefit. A team can’t be innovative and inspired every hour of every day. It must apply its normal force on a routine basis, and its extraordinary force for creative and innovative results. Sun Tzu reiterated: “In battle, there are not more than two kinds of postures—operation of the extraordinary force and operation of the normal force, but their combinations give rise to an endless series of maneuvers.”

Foster a Culture of Innovation to Push Boundaries
While acknowledging limitations is fundamental to knowing yourself and your organization, Sun Tzu never calls for complacency. Your organization faces limitations, and you’re subject to personal boundaries, but these barriers should be challenged when pragmatic to achieving business results. Boundaries too often stifle creativity and keep people from their best. Let’s explore again the example of time. Most people in business subscribe to a traditional work schedule. But if members of your team are more productive, creative, or inspired at 5:00 a.m., or midnight, doesn’t it make business sense for them to do their work then? Again, this is the idea of using “the extraordinary to win.”

The current world economy is creating great opportunities for consultants and solopreneurs, as well as virtual businesses that understand the value of empowering people to work on the terms that enable them to perform at their best. Models that may be unexpected routes today may well be the norm in the years to come.

Performing as expected, within a fixed scenario, against predictable challenges, will ultimately bring atrophy and failure. It teaches practitioners of the predictable to play by rules that others won’t respect. As Sun Tzu says, “Keep the army moving and devise unfathomable plans.” If you follow the same fixed patterns day in and day out, your plans will be eminently fathomable.

Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina learned first-hand the difficulty of introducing innovation to a leadership culture not ready for it. “If you want to change the results of a business, you have to change how people operate, what they are doing, why they are doing it and what inspires them to do something differently,” says Fiorina. “And so if you want, for example, to accelerate the rate of innovation in the business you have to think about how you get people to do something differently.” A culture of innovation begins with management.

Apply Deep Focus
Developing innovative plans requires focus and depth. Sun Tzu called for leaders to make time to break away from the clutter of warfare: “It is the business of a general to be quiet and thus ensure depth in deliberation; impartial and upright, and thus keep a good management.”

If you’re like most managers, you have very little time to focus when you’re fresh, alert, and creative. Making this time requires discipline. Joy Covey realized she needed extreme prioritization to manage her hectic schedule during the years of growth she helped create as CFO of Amazon. Her assistant scheduled her time in monthly themes. February, for example, was investor month. Covey’s schedule reflected this focus. If it wasn’t critical to the task that month and it wasn’t on that monthly theme, it was pushed back.

Focus is essential, but this doesn’t mean that if you don’t follow every detail of a plan to the letter you’ve failed. There will be times when you need to step back and recalibrate. This, too, is the deep deliberation called for by Sun Tzu. Changing course, shifting direction, and recalculating are all part of the fluidity and adaptation necessary to innovate, create, and win.

Many of Sun Tzu's messages still apply to managers today. Learn more about becoming a powerful manager with this AMA webinar.

About the Author(s)

Becky Sheetz-Runkle  is a marketing and communications strategist, author, and 9th Degree Black Belt in Jujitsu. She’s the author of Sun Tzu for Women: The Art of War for Winning in Business. Visit: www.suntzuforwomen.com