Sun Tzu and The Art of Innovation

In the early 1990s, Malaysian author Khoo Keng-Hor popularised the ancient writings of Chinese military master-mind Sun Tzu, by reframing them as management techniques. Sun Tzu's The Art of War, written approximately 500BCE, is full of sound military proverbs and advice, which has influenced the military, legal and business profession over its lengthy existence.

Although I do not find the war metaphor particularly helpful for innovation and business relations, Sun Tzu's proverbs can provide great insights to your skills as an innovative leader - especially in macro-planning. One of these proverbs resonates deeply with the findings of Clayton Christensen, found in The Innovator's Dilemma.

This proverb is simple, and reads as:

If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.

Many organisations spend large amounts of time and money in the effort of knowing themselves. Strategists, consultants and surveys combine to form purpose statements, organisational narratives, missions and objectives. These activities are vital for an organisation's success and focus.

However, not many organisations spend good time attempting to know their competitors. They do engage in mass market-research and analysis of competing organisations, and attempt to predict the activities of these corporate competitors. In much of my research and experience, this analysis is often reactive in nature - exploring how other organisations will respond to market-conditions, new products and marketing strategies.

What is not predicted is how fellow competitors will take action in innovative ways.

Clayton Christensen describes how many successful organisations fail because they focusso heavily on their customer's current needs and desires - and do not predict how technologies that are seemingly useless today may become industry standard in a few years.

The start-up organisations, however, are able to be more nimble and adaptable to new technologies - creating new markets for them - as they are not driven by their initial consumer needs, but by creating competitive new markets.

Simply put, ongoing organisations focus heavily on their current market and customer base. Innovative organisations focus on new markets and new products that can allow new competitive advantages.

To make this theory a reality - try this fun exercise. Grab your team, buy some pizza and block out two hours one afternoon. Then set out to destroy your company.

If you were a start-up company in the same industry as your current organisation - what would you do to compete? Assume that you cannot compete on the same scale as your current company - so how would you create new markets? What new technologies and possibilities will their be in your industry in five years time? What current technology - that may be more expensive and less practical at present - may transform the future of your industry? What actions would you take?

This fun activity will help you see your competitors as active agents, rather than as reactive responders to your organisation. This will also allow new innovative ideas to flourish - whilst creating an atmosphere of fun and creativity!