The Art of War by Sun Tzu is a recognized classic book on military strategy. While much of Sun Tzu’s advice deals directly with military topics and tactics, much of it does not. Rather it deals with culture and society. Sun Tzu shows that many times military victory can be won without engaging in battle, but rather by attacking the enemy’s will and capacity to win.
In many organizations, the digital transformation is a type of war. A war between the old processes, systems, and culture and the new digitally enabled processes, systems, and culture. The business leader who is charged with implementing digital transformation in their organization feels like every day is another battle.
When thought of in that light, much of The Art of War can provide useful insight on how to implement digital transformation. One of Sun Tzu’s principles was the principle of adaptation. This is addressed several times and in several different ways. One of these is found is the section on “Attack by Stratagem.”
There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army:
(1) By commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey. This is called hobbling the army.
(2) By attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army. This causes restlessness in the soldier’s minds.
(3) By employing the officers of his army without discrimination, through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to circumstances. This shakes the confidence of the soldiers. When the army is restless and distrustful, trouble is sure to come from the other feudal princes. This is simply bringing anarchy into the army, and flinging victory away.
Sun Tzu’s advice on the principle of adaptation applies to the business leadership in a company undergoing digital transformation. Let us consider the present-day equivalent to the three conditions that are mentioned.
Ignorance of the Actual State of Digital Transformation
The first issue identified is based upon ignorance. The leader does not know the actual state of their army in the field. They issue an order for advance or retreat that is impossible based upon the current circumstances. The army in the field is hobbled; they don’t know what to do. The ruler has directed them to do something impossible. Should they try knowing it will fail? Should they do something else that is contrary to the orders? Should they do nothing while they try to inform the leader? The confusion hobbles the army.
There is an obvious parallel to this situation in organizations undergoing digital transformation. When senior leadership does not know or understand the current state of the digital transformation project implementation. The leader may direct certain actions or approve other projects which cannot be implemented. This is done through ignorance. The leader doesn’t know what is happening or doesn’t understand what has been communicated to them.
Leaders do not need to micro-manage every detail of every project. But they should understand the big picture before they issue no directions. This lack of situational awareness will hobble the digital transformation team and leave them in a state of confusion. Ignorance in today’s environment is particularly inexcusable. The leader has the ability to communicate with virtually anyone, anywhere, any time. In addition, most organizations have business analytics capabilities that would enable the leader to see the detailed status of the digital transformation projects.
Out of Touch with the Digital Culture
The second issue identified by Sun Tzu is a misunderstanding of the culture. The culture of the army of his time was one of top-down directions, quick implementation, and results being the measurement for effectiveness. This is in contrast with the culture of the civil government and civil servants. In that environment it was important to make alliances with others, negotiate until there was agreement, and success was measured by who was your friend, not the results. Sun Tzu did not say one culture was right and one was wrong, rather he said they were different and the rules for interacting in one did not work with the other.
Culture is a critical issue in digital transformation initiatives. Digital transformation normally leads to team members who are more knowledgeable about the project and business, more engaged with customers and team members, and focused on problem solving not following rules and checklists. They are much more adaptable because the environment is changing much faster. Using top down mandates and micro-management control stifles digital transformation.
Don’t misunderstand this point. Sun Tzu is saying you must lead in a manner that is compatible with the culture. There is not one way that is always right. Rather, based upon the nature of the projects and the empowerment of the project teams, the leader adapts their leadership style to the situation. It is worthwhile noting that generally, digitally transformed businesses have less top-down management control and more team-based management and direction than traditional businesses.
Wrong Person for the Job
The third issue in the principle of adaptation is that the leader recognizes that different officers have different skill sets and temperament. Therefore, the effective leader will carefully select the individual who is best suited to accomplish the work in that situation.
One of the management principles that we have inherited from Taylorism and scientific management is the concept that people with the same education and experience are interchangeable gears in the machinery of business. The personality, intellect, and creativity of the individual was suppressed, and they were labeled and valued primarily by their skill set and position description. In a business process that is structured and controlled to drive out variation, this principle becomes foundational. But that is not the world that has been created through digital transformation.
Digital transformation processes are centered on customers and their unique desires and interaction patterns. Every customer is different and wants a customized product or service offering. Digitally transformed business processes can accommodate that desire because of their speed of execution and almost infinite flexibility. But this means the role of the team member and team leader become one of facilitator and problem solver to ensure the customer gets what they want. What can become truly fascinating is that some customers want and value uniformity in their experience and others want and value unique and creative experiences.
The effective leader in a digitally transformed business acknowledges the reality of the differences and deploys the team members in a way that ensures the team member dealing with the customer is suited to the nature of the desired interactions.
Building Confidence Leading to Victory
According to Sun Tzu, a proper application of the principle of adaptation will lead to victory. However, an inappropriate application, or even a non-existent application, will lead to chaos and distrust. The principle of adaptation is easy to articulate, “adapt your leadership style and the leadership within your organization to the unique circumstance of the situation and team members.” However, this principle runs contrary to many of the principles taught in business schools today. The focus is often on clear process definition, closely monitored process compliance, and measurements to ensure correct process performance. But as Sun Tzu shows, every situation is different. A process that works well in one situation may be impossible to implement in another.
Digital transformation will unleash speed in most business process execution and performance. The increased creation and communication of data and information can ensure that the “right” person in the process has all the information they need to make a good business decision in real-time. All that is needed for this to become an organization normal approach is for the senior leadership to understand and apply the principle of adaptation.
Raymond Sheen, PMP® LSS BB, is president and founder of Product & Process Innovation, Inc. He is a veteran business leader with over 30 years of executive, engineering management, and project management experience deploying new technology and improving business performance. He has consulted and trained companies in various industries and business functions including marketing, engineering, manufacturing, service, IT, and Finance. Ray is author of the book, Guide to Building Your Business Case, published by Harvard Business Review Press. Ray received his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the United States Air Force Academy and his M.S. in Astronautical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has a graduate certificate in Digital Leadership and Strategy from Boston University.