Sun Tzu and his Greatest Caveat
December 17, 2009 by Jeremiah
Sun Tzu wrote,
“According as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one’s plans.”
Consider that this phrase emerges in a chapter on the laying of favorable plans for victory. Consider that generals throughout history, in times both modern and ancient, are reluctant to change their plans after having committed to them. Furthermore, changing one’s plans is usually interpreted by others as a sign of weakness, lack of preparation, and even laziness and stupidity. To alter the direction of a large organization is to encourage disorder in the ranks, lack of faith in the leadership at the top, and presents a muddled picture to stakeholders large and small.
Such considerations were not invented in modern times. If a general altered his plans, word of it would surely get back to the advisers of the sovereign; the general’s political enemies would pounce upon the change as a sign of unsteady leadership, hinting – or perhaps lobbying – that a change in command should take place so that someone else can have a turn at either implementing the original plan, or at forming a new plan without the taint of unsteadiness.
Why, then, does Sun Tzu write this?
Sun Tzu’s primary focus and overriding goal was to deliver value to his stakeholders: his sovereign, his soldiers, and the civilian population that sustained both his sovereign and his soldiers through taxation, which is simply a word for appropriating the labor and hard-earned money of the public. He was not in public service as a military professional for glory or the sake of history. He did not put blinders over his eyes. He saw, through the experiences of others as well and his own, a simple, salient fact:
Reality must intrude.
Even if one can be said to have a perfect plan, there can still be imperfect circumstances. To be so devoted to one’s plan as to never change it; so in love with it, so wedded to it that it must never be altered in any way: this is to flagrantly ignore reality. War, among other activities, takes place in the real world, not on a chessboard. To lose a match at chess is to temporarily lose a few pawns until the next game. To lose in war means for many soldiers to die. To lose may even result in an entire state perishing. As Sun Tzu was well aware of, the dead cannot be brought back to life.
Sun Tzu’s message is to never be so committed to your plan that you are unprepared and unwilling to depart from your plan to take advantage of a genuine opportunity for victory that you did not, or could not, anticipate. Nor should the leader be unwilling to depart from his plan to avoid some great disaster that otherwise awaits him. To do otherwise is to allow stubbornness and recklessness to rule the self and condemn others to misery and loss. That is the opposite of delivering value to one’s stakeholders.
This also applies to “The Art of War” itself: never be so mesmerized by even this wonderful, rich book into thinking that it shall help you form plans that cannot and should not ever be altered according to circumstance. That would be wasting an important message from the original author.
Reality must intrude upon all plans. The wise strategist sees this as an opportunity.