While this is not a business book in the conventional sense, the teachings within it are relevant for anyone running a firm in a highly competitive landscape. At first reading the book is incredibly short, in total this would take an hour to read, none the less the teachings if understood properly are both profound and valuable. Due to the fact the book was written for a different era, in a military context, it is important to take the time to reflect on each chapter and if necessary, read an extended edition where a further explanation is given. None the less, even without that, there are certain passages that stand out:
- According as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one’s plans. In this context, if changing your plans will result in a better outcome, don’t be locked into your existing one.
- There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare. As an example of this, in the late 1990s the UK newspapers engaged in a price war to get circulation from the others. It rapidly became a race to the bottom, which no one won. Therefore be careful when initiating a commercial offensive against a competitor that it is done on the basis of the value of your solution, not the price.
- If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. In order to gain a significant advantage, you must know your competition, their product or solution offering as well as you know your own and understand for every strength they have, how you can neutralise it.
- Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances. Especially if you win a competitive tender where the other party saw how you won against them, expect your competition to adapt. In that instance you would need to adapt too.
- Now a soldier’s spirit is keenest in the morning; by noonday it has begun to flag; and in the evening, his mind is bent only on returning to camp. If your sales force are your soldiers, get them to do the toughest commercial meetings first thing in the morning, when they are most alert.
- Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death. If, however, you are indulgent, but unable to make your authority felt; kind-hearted, but unable to enforce your commands; and incapable, moreover, of quelling disorder: then your soldiers must be likened to spoilt children; they are useless for any practical purpose. To manage teams effectively one must be both empathetic, yet have the ability to challenge them when they step out of line.
- The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable. In essence, expect competition. It will come in all shapes and forms and is inevitable. The challenge, therefore, is to organise your own business so that regardless of the shape and form the competition presents itself in, you are unassailable.
Speaking for myself I will say I have probably read this book more than any other. On the one hand, its simplicity means that the lessons you are ready to receive on the first reading stand out, yet every time I read it, a new passage stands out to me. A must-read.