THE conventional wisdom is that in business, there are rarely winners without losers. And sometimes, the path to success is littered with the bodies of your competitors.
But those who read Sun Zi Bingfa: Strategic Applications to Business and Marketing Practices will come away knowing that waging war is not necessary in order to emerge victorious.
Inspired by Sun Tzu's Art of War, Wee Chow-Hou, professor of strategy and marketing at the Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University, uses the concepts of fighting military battles to illustrate a relationship between war and business.
In his book, he argues that you do not need to go around killing your business competitors. In fact, subduing the enemy without doing battle is ultimately the best strategy. Companies emerge stronger when they face intense competition, but they shouldn't enter into price, bidding or promotional wars against their rivals without careful analysis.
Competition or the equivalent of a military war in the business context plays out these days in the form of price wars. In the Cola Wars, Coke and Pepsi waged a furious battle in the soda market in the 80s; in the sky wars, Airbus, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas slugged it out for market share in the airline industry in the 90s.
Although the book advocates war as a last resort, it doesn't imply that battles will not be fought. For a leader to decide whether a nation should go to war, his moral influences are of utmost importance. As Sun Zi said, a warlord must not embark on a military campaign simply out of anger. Similarly, in business, a leader cannot be reckless in his decisions especially if it involves an entire nation.
Citing North Korea as an example, Prof Wee said that the country shuts itself out as a form of "cold" war by refusing to engage in trade with other nations. In contrast to North Korea, China opened itself up to the world under Deng Xiaoping's leadership, in the 1978 move that tore down the "Bamboo Curtain".
Eventually, this move encouraged other nations to trade with it. From a poverty-stricken nation dependent on agriculture to the world's largest manufacturing base today, China has proven that showing an open-door policy brings growth and opportunity.
Sun Zi Bingfa also refers to the "blue-ocean" strategy for companies, defined as the "most logical way to generate growth and profits". A blue-ocean company is one that creates uncontested market space instead of competing in existing markets, which have shrinking profit margins and limited growth opportunities.
Cirque du Soleil is an example of a successful blue-ocean company. It eliminated the use of animals that are the stock-in-trade of circuses and has instead woven in opera and ballet into its performances.
Dyson, the makers of vacuum cleaners that run on cyclone technology, is another example; although there have been copycat versions of the British company's bladeless fans in China, Dyson has arguably been the leader in that market since 2009.
While there is a need for the selective usage of offensive strategies, proactive defence is occasionally necessary when forces and resources are inadequate. Just as David could defeat Goliath, a small company is capable of picking a single position of the enemy and concentrate its forces there, adopting the "hit-and-run" strategy from guerrilla warfare to defeat its rivals.
It is easy for the mind to drift while reading Sun Zi Bingfa because it gets repetitive in the middle, and similar points are supported by the same examples.
But, the book is still a good read for those in the corporate world, which still has a lot to learn from the army.
This article was first published on March 4, 2017.
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