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10 Reasons You Should Dust Off 'Art of War'--and Read It

Powerful business lessons from an iconic ancient Chinese strategist.
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Sun Tzu said, "The art of war is of vital importance to the State."

This is true in business as much as politics.

You might feel as though you're full-on at war some days. Other days, it's more subtle, but the elements of combat are there--in your pricing, product chain, negotiations, and the ever-changing lineup of promotions needed to draw consumers over, one by one, to your side.

Sun Tzu's The Art of War is one of the world's most revered books on strategy. Although this classic was compiled more than 2,000 ago,  there is still much you can learn from the writing on managing conflict wisely, efficiently, and victoriously.

1. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.

Here, Sun Tzu is saying those who strategize and plan are better equipped to handle conflict than those with no plan. Successful entrepreneurs and managers are prepared for change and ready to act on it when the opportunity presents itself. They have the tools, training, and flexibility to change direction when warranted. You can't execute without a well thought-out plan to guide the way.

2. According as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one's plans.

Even though you must plan for every eventuality in business, flexibility is critical. You need to recognize when change is needed. This can prove particularly challenging in business, as it often seems wiser to stay the course. If you look at examples like RIM/BlackBerry though, which resisted the shift toward smartphone apps, you can see that unwillingness to change can be a costly mistake.

3. Ground on which we can only be saved from destruction by fighting without delay, is desperate ground.

Sun Tzu was big on picking your battles. This lesson is critically important in the age of social media and the Internet. Consumers expect responses to online communications almost immediately. It might also seem that when a competitor takes a shot at you, an immediate counteraction is required. However, the best course of action usually isn't the knee-jerk reaction, but rather a carefully thought-out and planned response. Some situations may not even warrant a response. Always take a step back and evaluate the situation before fighting back.

4. On open ground, do not try to block the enemy's way. On the ground of intersecting highways, join hands with your enemies.

In business, you might be tempted to directly attack. Consider the 'Scroogled' campaign Microsoft Bing launched against Google. Bing warned consumers not to get Scroogled by its rival search engine during the holiday campaigns in 2012. The campaign was deemed hypocritical and criticized by many. The full frontal assault on your competitor just may backfire, so find more creative avenues to weaken it. Ideally, you'll find others lower on the totem pole to join forces.

5. If he is secure at all points, prepare for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him.

Assume your competitors might be coming for you if they seem to have their house in order and you can't find a weakness. Smaller retailers, for example, probably feel this way about Amazon--where is the chink in that armor? When a competitor is so much stronger than you as to have the clear advantage, it's not the time to attack and put yourself on its radar.

6. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest.

The time when your competitors need to regroup and recover is the time to go on the attack. This may not mean attacking them, per se, but don't be pacified into taking it a bit easier yourself because they don't have their campaigns in full swing. If you are still strong, use their need to rest to your advantage.

7. Prohibit the taking of omens, and do away with superstitious doubts.

We have more data at our disposal than ever before. If you're still basing business decisions on gut instincts and personal feelings, you're setting yourself up to fail.

8. Rapidity is the essence of war: Take advantage of the enemy's unreadiness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack unguarded spots.

In the modern business environment, much can be gained by staying a step ahead of competitors in the technology arena. What tools or platforms can give you an edge in helping you give consumers a better overall experience? Be there before your competitors are. Set the trends. Offer experiences people don't yet expect, but will appreciate. Watch your competitors struggle as they clamber to catch up to you, sapping their energy by worrying about what you're doing. Isn't that a more productive position than constantly being the pursuer?

9. Use the conquered foe to augment one's strength.

When you've gained ground against a competitor, are you taking all you can and using it to build your own business? This might mean developing an outreach strategy to seek out its unhappy customers and bringing them into your own folds. It could mean taking on a supplier after their relationship soured, in order to offer a specific product that will win over more consumers. Find that angle and exploit it.

10. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged war.

This is especially true in business. Do you see how much money is wasted on political attack ads? Profitable businesses can't afford long, all-out wars with competitors--just imagine the ad spend and PR budget!

Learn how to recognize opportunities to strike smartly and efficiently. There is much skill in business, but managing conflict and competition is an art as old as time.

Last updated: Jul 14, 2014

LARRY KIM | Columnist

Larry Kim is the founder and CTO of WordStream, provider of the 20-Minute PPC Work Week and the free AdWords Grader. You can subscribe here to Larry’s business growth tips by email.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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