Du Mu on the mountain


What makes for a successful pivot by a challenged incumbent, enabling (in rare cases) continued leadership through more than one major epoch of an industry? Lessons from the Art of War.

Peter Coffee

At an absurdly low price of £0.99, anyone of employable age with an Amazon Kindle account should buy (and read) The Art of War: The Denma Translation. I discovered this can’t-believe-it bargain when I sought to verify a favorite quotation via Google, since my heavily highlighted hard copy was several time zones west of me at that moment.

Let me explain what a 5th-century text, and centuries of subsequent commentary, have to do with digital transformation and 21st-century disruption.

My Denma is a treasured reference, one of the ten books I would keep if forced to discard all others, because of content that’s unknown even to people who think this book is just one big cliché. (That criticism always reminds me of the joke about the man who attended his first performance of a Shakespeare play and said, “I don’t know why people think he was such a great writer: it was just one cliché after another.” Phrases become clichés because people find them meaningful.)

What makes this edition exceptional is what’s included – indeed, what makes up most of the content – besides the surprisingly concise remarks of Sun Tzu. You could fit all of Master Sun’s maxims on a little more than twenty pages of 11-point type. (I know, because I just did it. I love the World Wide Web, and I still love having a real computer.)

Many people who vaguely recognize the title of this book (which is almost everyone) may think you’re quoting Sun Tzu whenever you cite it, but the bulk of the Denma translation is the commentaries added by others: for my money, that’s where much of the best stuff is found.

After all, any Hollywood-stereotype Wall Streeter can quote Sun Tzu on military combat; others prefer Bruce Lee’s references to the quotations on conflict avoidance; but you can’t beat the commentators like Du Mu (9th century) and Li Quan (7th century), who I will put up against even Peter Drucker or Robert Townsend in my pantheon of people who’ve written things that I never forget.

For example, the Li Quan quotation that I have in mind is, “Victory is apparent to all, but the science of ensuring victory is a mysterious secret.” Another commentator, Mei Yaochen (11th century) similarly said: “The multitudes know when you win; they know the traces of attainment of victory, but do not know the abstract form that makes for victory.”

These are both statements about the importance of process, and they are key to the question of what makes for successful disruption by a new entrant into a market; also what makes for a successful pivot by a challenged incumbent, enabling (in rare cases) continued leadership through more than one major epoch of an industry.

No more secrets?

Today, in an API economy of services wrapped around products, it’s almost an anachronism to speak of trade secrets: Coca-Cola may still have a secret formula, Zildjian may closely guard the process by which it makes the cymbals beloved by percussionists, but these are not the kind of thing that redefines an industry today. Uber, Amazon, Google, or Salesforce do what they do out in the open, where everyone can see both of the magician’s hands.

What can not be seen by “the multitudes” is the meta-process (what Mei Yaochen called “the abstract form”) that is a company’s incubator of consistent execution and continual innovation. I make this point routinely in talking about, for example, Salesforce (where I am now in my 11th year): as a pure service provider, with a commitment to feature-completeness at the level of public APIs, there is literally nothing that Salesforce sells that is not apparent to anyone’s interested inspection. Anyone can free-trial the service, anyone can come to the Dreamforce conference, anyone can download the development tools. The company had better be sure that it’s a moving target, or its commoditization would be almost inevitable.

This point arose at The Business of APIs conference, a few years ago, where someone said that “If we made our entire API open, someone could just download our developer kit and clone our product.” Someone else on the same panel said “Our entire API is open, and someone could do that to us, but that just means we have to keep the puck moving – so that they skate to the place we just left behind” (which Wayne Gretzky may never have actually said).

The same idea is often mentioned as one of the “Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead”, because that legendary rock group encouraged its fans to record its concerts and distribute those recordings: this practice built audience for the next concert, and created a constant challenge to the group to do new things and do their old things better.

Constructing and maintaining the incubator is the challenge to leaders as a company grows: when they fail in that challenge, companies choke on the waste products of their growth or develop other dysfunctions. “Why companies die” is the title of a recent essay from London’s Imperial College Business School, and its prescriptions bear reading; they also repeat Bill Gates’s oft-quoted warning that “success is a lousy teacher, it seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

That brings us to my other favorite Art of War quotation, which defends against the seduction that Bill Gates warns us to avoid. Du Mu said “If you roll rocks down a mountain, they can not be stopped: this is because of the mountain, not the rocks.” At any given time, the landscape is in upheaval as new mountains emerge:

  • In the 1970s, it was Mount Microprocessor that was just beginning to erupt: companies like Intel and Microsoft rolled the rocks of the x86 architecture, and the DOS/Windows platform, down its slopes as the mountain grew upwards.
  • In the 1980s, we connected our microprocessor-enabled boxes into local networks: Novell and 3Com enjoyed their opportunity to rock and roll.
  • In the 1990s, connected networks were unified by non-proprietary HTML and other protocols into the World Wide Web. Netscape came and went. Microsoft came late, but pivoted effectively with Windows 9x. Apple returned from a near-death experience with its transformative first-generation iMac. Both of the latter two companies are still rolling rocks down from various peaks, but Apple’s Mount Mobility and Apps Alps are today’s more commanding terrain. SaaS in general, Salesforce in particular, had a high point from which they could gain advantage.
  • Today’s rising peak is clearly Smart Summit, as a surge of scalable and sophisticated machine-learning tools—in a fully connected world—creates the potential energy for the next dramatic changes. Rocks are already rolling down that hill, with names like Siri, Alexa, Watson and Einstein.

The game-changer is no longer (if it ever really was) the probably-most-cited Sun Tzu question of how to destroy the will of the enemy so as to win without fighting.

It is partially the Li Quan question of how to master the science of ensuring victory, and the Mei Yaochen question of constructing an abstract form—that is to say, a corporate culture—to execute on that understanding.

It is most of all the Du Mu question, “What is the next mountain that is only just emerging from the landscape?” Constant surveillance, not of your “competitors” who fight you for space on the current peak, but of the flat lands around you that may bring forth new peaks to climb, is the key to next-generation relevance and success.

Image credit - The Art of War/Salesforce

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