The Art of Transformation

Sun Tsu is one of the most influential thinkers ever. He is the grandfather of military strategy and created a new genre of strategic thinking and reasoning. About 2,500 years ago.

Fast forward to more modern times. Europe in the early 1900’s faced a new problem. Large scale wars, leading up to WWI, required rapid expansion of industrial capacities. Including managing a much larger workforce.

In response, industrialists looked at the army and how it led a large number of soldiers. And adopted the military’s command structure and hierarchy. So in a sense, Sun Tsu is also the grandfather of business strategy.

The art of transformation by jesper lowgren


The structure on the left is a typical military structure. The structure on the right is a typical organisational structure.

The connection between military and business strategy makes Sun Tzu worth a closer look. His Art of War outlines a blueprint for competitive success. The first chapter, Assessment and Planning, describes the 7 Elements of Success.

These are relevant for the digital disruption. They provide insights into how to transform. And how to operate in an increasing changing and disruptive environment.

So let’s have a look at his seven elements of success and their relevance to digital transformation:

Element 1: Who has the strongest values and purpose?

Sun Tsu believed that success came from those who believed the strongest in a common thing. He believed in shared values and purpose.

Also read: How to use Purpose to Drive Digital Success.

In the digital disruption, this is more important. Change is inevitable yet we cannot survive where everything changes. We need something fixed and stable. Something to navigate our fast-changing and disruptive world.

Element 2: Who has the most ability?

Sun Tzu’ referred to fighting cohesiveness. Today, fighting cohesiveness, or competitive advantage, looks different. In the digital world, we face two game-changers:

  • External change increases so fast we cannot keep up. We cannot plan for what we don’t know.
  • Everything in the digital world can be copied. Physical assets are fast becoming commoditised, accelerating in the sharing economy.

Also read: Strategy is Dead. Long Live Agility.

How do we compete in such as challenging environment? We must become agile. And be capable of responding to change faster and cheaper than competitors and disruptors.

Element 3: Who has unfair advantages?

An unfair advantage is to have something scarce that others want. Sun Tzu referred to natural resources and population size. The more someone else wants it, the more unfair it is.

To have something others want, but only a few can provide, is essential in the digital world. Because everything digital can be copied, barriers to entry are often low. Analogue differentiation is critical!

Element 4: Who most rigorously enforce their values and culture?

Sun Tzu referred to discipline and reward systems as methods for ensuring loyalty.

Purpose and Shared values are critical to prosper in the digital world. HR and other people-related systems need to integrate purpose and values. Otherwise, it will remain an intention, not a part of the culture.

Also read: How to use Values to Drive Transformation.

Element 5: Who is stronger?

Here Sun Tzu referred to the immediate strength and weaknesses of an army, to exploit in a potential confrontation.

The digital world is less competitive and more collaborative. And where differentiation is key. Strength is the ability to focus on what we do well. And use collaborators in areas we are not.

Element 6: Who is better trained?

Sun Tzu referred to the resilience of an army and its ability to project strength over time.

Today the battle is to attract talent. And keeping the passion in talent-employees alive and directed towards organisational outcomes.

Element 7: Who equally rewards good and bad behaviour?

Here Sun Tzu referred to fairness and consistency. A chain is never stronger than its weakest link. Confidence is undermined from within by not recognising and acting on good and bad behaviour.

What do you think? Does Sun Tsu have something to contribute to digital disruption and transformation? Please share your thoughts!


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Jesper Lowgren

Jesper Lowgren is a published author, keynote speaker, member of board of advisors for Enterprise Transformation 2020, and a business & digital transformation thought-leader with Telstra Limited, Australia’s largest telecommunications provider.

He is a published author of two books on transformation. Both are available on Amazon.

- ON PURPOSE – The Path to Extraordinary Business Transformation.
- FROM ORDINARY TO EXTRAORDINARY – How to Re-Imagine Yourself and Re-Define what is Possible.

Jesper is Swedish and apologises for any Swenglish creeping into his writing.
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