ARTICLES in Strategy


Dr. Ong Hean-Tatt. 2nd February 1999

Sun Zi Art of War,
the world oldest military strategy manual


Sun Zi: Earliest Strategic Planning Process

Strategic management thinkers have high regard for Sun Zi's Art of War, the world's oldest war manual, as a strategic thinking text. Together with other traditional strategic texts, like Clausewitz's "On War" or Machiavelli's "The Prince", Sun Zi's Art of War is recognised as having a superior strategic style. Military strategists, politicians, businessmen and management executives have studied the manual for various applications.

In modern management, it is established that the strategic planning process has to be executed through a series of sequential steps, viz. [1] identification of the business mission, [2]environmental analysis of strengths, weakness, oppotunities and threats, formulations of [3]goals, [4]strategies and [5]programs, [6]implementation and [7]monitoring and feedback control. The amazing thing is that this flow of strategic steps has been known by the ancient Chinese strategists, for it was described by Sun Zi!

Sun Zi's Sequence of Strategic Planning Process

Sun Zi's "Art of War", the world's oldest war manual written between about 506 to 496 B.C., is a short book with only 13 sections, each section seldom more than one page. It contains less than 6,200 characters; the longest section having 1,073 characters while the shortest one 248 characters, averaging 500 characters per section. The 13 Sections in Sun Zi's "Art of War" are:

  • 1. Planning
  • 2. Waging War
  • 3. Offensive Strategy
  • 4. Tactics
  • 5. Energy
  • 6. Weak and Strong Points
  • 7. Maneuvers
  • 8. Tactical Variations
  • 9. On the March
  • 10. Terrain
  • 11. The Nine Varieties of Grounds
  • 12. Attack by Fire
  • 13. A Crack Between Two Doors (misleading dubbed as "Espionage")

Careful examination of Sun Zi's Art of War would show that the flow of themes in Sun Zi's Art of War follows the sequential steps of the strategic planning process as understood in modern management. The initial six sections of Sun Zi's Art of War concern the development of plans, goals, strategies and programs, which then follows into the implementation stage as described in the later sections of Sun Zi's Art of War. That is, Sun Zi's Art of War is not only the world oldest military manual, but is also the earliest description of the strategic planning process!

It opens up with the sound advice on the necessity of good planning through seriously evaluating all relevant factors:

  • The art of war is of vital importance..It is essential that it is studied seriously. Therefore, appraise it in terms of the five fundamental factors and compare the seven elements later named so that you may assess its importance. Sun Zi 1:1-2.

Ong (1994) and Ong et al (1997) have shown that the thirteen sections of Sun Zi's Art of War actually adopt the flow of steps of the modern strategic planning process (corresponding to Sun Zi's 13 sections as shown within brackets), viz.:

Step 1. The Business Mission (Section 1)

The first step in strategic planning is that the specific purpose or mission must be made clear. This may be spelt out in the Memorandum of Association of the business organisation. It may be called the "Business Mission" or "Corporate Mission". Sun Zi's strategic planning begins with a declaration of the "Business Mission" (Section 1) in hand: The art of war is of vital importance to the State. A matter of life or death; the road to safety or ruin. It is essential that it has to be studied thoroughly. (Sun Zi 1:1-2).

Step 2. Environmental Analysis (Section 1)

The council of the kingdom then deliberates on its resources through the step of "Environmental Analysis" (Section 1), which include comparison with their status viz the enemy. This next step is an evaluation of the organisation, as to whether it is geared towards accomplishing the said purpose or mission. It would entail evaluation of the strengths and weakness of the structure of the organisation, its manpower and other resources. This step includes "Internal Environmental Analysis" and "External Environmental Analysis", the later being a comparison with external factors such as competitors, market situation and future trends.

The modern SWOT Analysis composes of an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses followed by identification of opportunities and threats:

  • Strengths. Positive aspects.
  • Weaknesses. Deficiencies.
  • Opportunities. The changing environment through time always creates new opportunities.
  • Threats. Converse to opportunities, the changing environment can also create new trends which could threaten the products of the organisation.

An important feature of this "Environmental Analysis" is adequate gathering and scanning of informations. Sun Zi emphasises a comprehensive evaluation through considering "Five Factors" and "Seven Considerations".

Steps 3,4. Formulations of Goals (Section 2) and Strategies (Section 3)

Based on the "Environmental Analysis" is the next steps of formulation of its principal goals and strategies through the next steps of "Goal Formulation" (Section 2) and "Strategy Formulation". (Section 3). These goals and strategies must be specific.

Some confusion could arise in understanding "Goal Formulation". All enterprises are set to "win"; hence "winning" is not the real goal. Goals, also better redefined as "targets" or "objectives" must be more specific than that. Goals must be realistic and depends on available resources.

Goals are where the business wants to go, strategy is the "trick" of how to get there. "Strategy Formulation" is often about leading human resources and involve aspects like efficiency, specialisation, persuasion, psychology and innovations.

Step 5. Formulation of Programs (Sections 4 to 6)

The goals and strategies then form the basis of determining the actions the organisation must take through specified time periods. There must be datelines. These lines of scheduled actions are the "Program Formulation" (Sections 4 to 6).

A series of relevant programs is formulated to apply the "Strategy" to achieve the "Goal". Sun Zi believed in a contingency of plans. For, should one program fails, there should be an alternative program to replace the earlier program. Sun Zi also believes in quantitative analysis.

Step 6. Check the Field Conditions (Section 7)

Once the programs are defined in the "Program Formulation", it is necessary to implement the programs. But, before rushing to fully implement the plan, Sun Zi advocates a crucial "Flying Column" strategy in Section 7: check the field or ground conditions first!

Step 7. Implementation: Organisation and Operation (Sections 8 to 11)

During the initial stages of the "Implementation", there will be need to select the leaders (Section 8), re-structure the organisation (Section 9) and even provision of training. Then, effective communication, management and leadership will be required to successfully implement the programs.

Management leaders must also differentiate between normal operation (Section 10) and crisis situation (Sections 11 and 12).

Step 8. Feedback and Control (Sections 12 and 13)

At all stages of planning, there is always a need to monitor, assess and regulate the progress of planning and implementation. Collation of information, important in the initial planning, is again important, in order to monitor and gauge the suituation for effective regulation and control.

Thus, Sun Zi's Art of War is the earliest description of a sequential systematic chain of thoughts and steps, which follow closely the universally known sequential steps of the modern "Strategic Planning" (e.g. Kotler 1967 p.32). The main impact of Sun Zi's Art of War is because its war reasoning is not only highly interesting and applicable to serious high pressure situations, but its exciting martial perspective would offer a rather effective mechanism to imprint into the reader's mind the sequential steps of "Strategic Planning".

Kotler,P. 1967. Marketing Management: Analysis, Planning, Implementation and Control. Prentice Hall, New Jersey.
Ong, H.T. 1994. Beyond Sun Tzu's Art of War.. the Confucian Way. S.Abdul Majeed & Co. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Ong, H.T., Yap, S.T. and Kawatani, T. 1997. Asian Winning Strategies for Modern & Global Business. Synergy Books International. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.