The Art of War

I've studied martial arts much of my life. More than just self-defense, martial arts is a way of life that is embodied by the philosophy of Sun Tzu, one of history's most famous generals. Since the business world is a lot like the battlefield, I've been able to apply the basic tenets of Master Tzu's "art of war" philosophy to managing large technology projects with great success.

As CTO at Web development company iXL Enterprises Inc., my biggest challenge was not that iXL was in the Internet space but that it grew so quickly. When I joined the company we had 100 people in two offices. In less than four years we grew to more than 3,000 employees after having acquired 30 different companies. I was in charge of bringing everyone together under one intranet-making one cohesive organization from 30 separate organizations while connecting everything to one platform.

Although I don't always like to use the battlefield analogy in business, it clearly applied to the intranet project, which was rife with internal politics. An intranet, after all, touches everybody. And people are extremely opinionated about a system that will change the way they work. So I decided to approach the project the way Sun Tzu would prepare for war.

According to Sun Tzu, you need to know three things before going into battle. The first is the terrain-the environment you're working with. Second, you need to know as much as you can about the person or people you're preparing to battle. You need to know the troop size as well as the skill sets of the leaders. The third key is knowing your own internal resources and what you can do with them.

With that knowledge in hand, you should follow a logical progression to move toward your desired outcome. First, move your resources to the place where they can best win the battle. Once you've established your position of power, use diplomacy to have very high-level discussions with other parties. Only when diplomacy fails do you go into battle.

The greatest thing is to achieve your goal without firing a single shot. You do this by making sure that your positioning is maximized early on. And that requires getting feedback and doing your homework. Rather than initiating a battle at the outset of the intranet project, I began by hopping on airplanes to meet with general managers, HR people and end users of the system to see what they wanted to get out of it. I started becoming a good listener. And people were extremely responsive.

For me, these principles are more ingrained than conscious. But as a rule of thumb, I try to plan major projects in terms of the general tenets of Sun Tzu. I focus on positioning first. Then I focus on what kind of concessions I can bring to the discussion early on before taking the command-and-control approach.

This approach is valuable whether you're on the business side or the technology side of a project. I believe that you're a lot more likely to succeed if you first invest in knowledge gathering and diplomacy rather than issuing blanket orders. People are shortsighted when they think that if they make a blind decision it won't come back to get them in the end. It always will.

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