How to Strategize Disruption like Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu believed that as you assess five elements you will quickly be able to develop a winning strategy.

This is the third article in a series on developing your disruptive strategy for 2019. In the two previous articles, I detailed the disruptive vision and focus. One of the critical advantages I provide to my executive coaching clients is to help them strategize disruptive success. To do that, they come to see what others never imagined and begin to strategize to go beyond measured, incremental growth.

Disruptive Strategy Checkmate

Sun Tzu is credited with writing “The Art of War” that is valuable for military and business leadership. He was a Chinese general, military strategist, writer, and philosopher who lived in the Eastern Zhou period of ancient China. He is especially interesting to this discussion on disruptive strategy because there are many things in “The Art of War” that are different from what we might think.

 “Assess the advantages in taking advice, then structure your forces accordingly, to supplement extraordinary tactics.  Forces are to be structured strategically, based on what is advantageous.”

Sun Tzu in The Art of War

Sun Tzu taught that these five steps led to the best winning strategies. In his chapter on “Planning the Siege,” he identified a 3 tiered strategy.  The best strategy was to render the opposing army helpless without ever fighting. Second best was to attack while the opponent is still planning and the last and least favorable option was to attack the city after 3 months of planning. He knew his approach and always relied on that strategy. More importantly, thousands of military leaders have successfully employed his strategies since he first articulated them.

Knowing your strategy is critical for any success. We generally see three different approaches. First, there is a group that never takes the time to build their strategy. They say they are too busy. Second, leaders devise a strategy and tell everyone else what to do. They often fail because their strategy is one dimensional and their team has no unity. Third, there are a few who build a strong team and ask for help to become strong and stay strong.  They welcome assistance with the assessment and brainstorm with the strategy.  They y realize the competition is strong and the terrain is difficult. They often realize their breakthrough success.

Consider these five aspects of strategy as you focus on 2019 disruptive success.

1. Measure

First, measure how much your competitor has a shared vision with their followers.  How united are they?

Sun Tzu believed in leveraging leadership power, not wielding brutal strength. To strategize disruptive success in 2019, first look at what others are doing. When you do, focus not just on what they do but how they do it. Are they working toward a unified vision?

Notice we started this series by clarifying our vision. As we focus on strategy, we return to that first step. Too often executive leadership develops the vision and expects the team to follow it. In other words, the vision is dictated or distributed but not necessarily shared. I’m sure you can measure the problems with that assumption.

Sun Tzu believed that a small but unified army could defeat a much larger army that was not unified. How unified is your competitor? Before you can ever strategize a plan, you have to know what you are up against.

NOTE: Many claim they are so disruptive that they have no competition. If you believe that, please stop and assess again. Everyone has competition, even if it is consumer complacency. Assessing the landscape, according to Sun Tzu, is wisely recognizing what exists.

Disruptive Strategy #1: Measure the unity of your competitor’s team. What are you up against? 

2. Assess

Second, assess the current conditions.  When is the best time to make your move?

Sun Tzu, as with any military leader, understands that the conditions dictate when to make your move and when to expect the opposing army to make theirs. This takes a careful assessment.

Disruption is about delivering the solution to their problem at the right time. Many believe that the first to disrupt will be the most successful. Others believe that waiting and allowing others to struggle with creating a market makes their approach easier. Disruptors have been successful with either strategy. What is yours?

Disruptive Strategy #2: Assess the current conditions. What do you need to offer and when is the best time to offer your solution to their problem?

Learn to Sense and Seize Your Disruptive Opportunities

3. Observe

Third, observe the “lay of the land.”  What will it take to realize your ultimate vision in the current world?

What products or services will consumers buy? In the end, it all comes down to getting enough people to buy. We can have the best but unless they agree, we might be sitting alone wondering what happened.

Sun Tzu knew the correct action is needed at the right time. That is where a strategic plan comes into play. This is a living breathing document that is detailed early, written down and revised often. What outcomes do you want? What steps are needed to ensure your success?

Strategy involved setting goals. We have all heard of SMART goals that are Specific, Measurable, Actionable/Attainable, Relative to your vision, Timely.

Disruptive Strategy #3: Write down your disruptive goals. 

How Do You Set Disruptive Goals?

4. Look Inside

Fourth, look inside your team.  Do you have the leadership that is trustworthy, courageous, and cares enough for the team to win the battle?

Leadership development has taken many turns over the years but the latest turn is the most interesting. The old Industrial Age leader focused on competition so they demanded control and compliance. But today, the Sharing Economy is thriving by connecting to collaborate and ultimately create what we have never had before. The impossible becomes possible with a team who is not just obeying but rather willingly collaborating on disruptive projects. Technology giants such as Google and Apple attract the best talent because they care about doing something great and have the freedom to pursue great ideas.

Disruptive Strategy #4: Ask yourself, “Is my team unified in creating disruption? If not, what do you need to do to bring them together?

5. Analyze Your Processes

Fifth, analyze your processes you will need to reach your SMART goals.  Do you have the processes that will turn your vision into reality at the required time?

Processes are well-thought out, systematic sets of actions designed to produce consistent results. They are proactive more than they are reactive. The brilliance behind great processes is to establish them before they are needed and refined as conditions change.

The puzzling part is that many don’t have their processes well defined or regularly refined. Too often those attempting disruptions have to create new processes because what they are doing changed established paradigms. That often means that the processes need to be reinvented.

Disruptive Strategy #5: Use a critical eye to evaluate your processes. Will they be what you need to do what many never thought possible? 

Your challenge is to complete your strategy by addressing each of these five steps. In the next article, we discuss setting the priorities for your goals.



Loren Murfield, Ph.D.

TakeTheOpportunityChallengescaledI work with leaders and organizations to think bigger and reach higher to find breakthrough success. This is a process that I can help you learn. One of the ways I help clients is by guiding them through my Disruptive Opportunity Challenge.  Begin the process today by contacting me.

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