Sun Tzu Knows Innovation

In a recent course, I was asked to come up with three quotes that I like on leadership. My top choices were:

1. “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

Source: Steve Jobs; 2005 Stanford University Commencement Speech

Why it resonates: From interviewing and observing leaders, a common trait seems to always be motivation (Stay Hungry) and two leaders told me the key to their success was to take risks (Stay Foolish).

2. “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

Source: Wayne Gretzky

Why it resonates: A leader has a vision for the future and aligns events and people in such a way that they are able to be successful and achieve a common goal. 

3. “A skilled commander seeks victory from the situation and does not demand it of his subordinates. He selects suitable men and exploits the situation. He who utilizes the situation uses his men in fighting as one rolls logs or stones.”

Source: Art of War, Sun Tzu

Why it resonates: Leaders must not try to extract outcomes from workers, but instead they should create circumstances, use the environment/situation to their advantage, and utilize resources (including financial and human) so the natural result is success.

When I looked back at them, I realized all three of these quotes align with both leadership and innovation.  My favorite was from Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese military general who is famous for his treatise on military strategy. His quote reminds me, that a true innovator looks at the prevailing consumer needs before shoving a useless product down the market’s throat. It may be possible to earn revenue through operational excellence, ingenious marketing, and fantastic salesmanship, but in the long run all that is for naught if consumers don’t have any need for what your selling. Is it possible that Sun Tzu was the world’s first military design thinker? I’ll vote yes.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re an ancient Roman general in charge of the western front of Sudan. You’ve been in a few battles before and decided to you can just copy-paste your last battle strategy into the one you’re facing today. Remember, you’re imagining here. Surely, it’s possible to demand that your front line swordsmen and archers move forward along path 1 and 2 then complete 3 tasks, but this linear thinking ignores important environmental realities. You’ve already decided that you’re only going to focus on path 1 and 2 so what happens when the conditions are different and the enemy responds in a different way? Most likely, you’ll fail when your whole battle plan is solely based on a framework for a battlefield different than what you planned on encountering.

Sun Tzu speaks of natural consequences such as rolling logs down a hill. It’s simple laws of physics that you’re dealing with here – it’s innate and unchangeable. Similarly, if you can find the product that meets the (natural) needs of consumers you’ll find a captive audience of buyers. You’ll gain great momentum in the marketplace if you take time before you hit the production line researching what consumers actually want way before you start building. The greatest design thinkers have been doing this for decades. It’s always fun to have a solution, but it’s better to realize the problem first, and then define the solution.

Luckily for you, consumers are always looking for more. Technology is changing every day and expectations rise constantly. Successful innovation, then, is about meeting this rising tide of change with a product that solves a problem at the right price. Success is there for the taking because you’ve already realized success – all you need to do is execute it.