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The Shortest Distance
By Mark McNeilly

Sun Tzu states that, "He who wishes to snatch an advantage (on the enemy) takes a devious and distant route and makes of it the short way." How different is this approach is from that often used in the West.

Sun Tzu states that, "He who wishes to snatch an advantage (on the enemy) takes a devious and distant route and makes of it the short way." How different is this approach is from that often used in the West.

The Western approach, based heavily on science, logic and mathematics, teaches us that "the shortest distance between two points is a straight line." From that basic premise many people assume that taking a straight and direct path is the quickest, least resource-intensive and most profitable method of achieving their goal. However, imagine for a moment that those two points in space are two cities on the surface of the earth, Beijing and Washington. If one wanted to travel between these two places using the straight line approach one would be forced to go through the hard core center of the earth. Obviously, this direct approach is not the fastest or least resource intensive means of achieving one's goal. Indeed, it is much faster and easier to travel around the globe.

The same is true in business strategy; "straight line" strategies don't work. A direct attack on a competitor, such as starting a price war or bringing out a me-too product, is what that competitor will expect. When one attacks another company using only a direct attack the result is that the attack actually increases and strengthens the competitor's resistance, both physically and mentally. When the attack is landing where it is expected there is no element of surprise. Therefore the competitor is balanced and prepared to receive the attack's blows. Direct attacks are expensive to mount and often lead to reduced profits in the marketplace.

A successful business strategist realizes that an indirect approach is essential to success. An attack that is subtle and unexpected, one that relies on strategic creativity, is what will be effective. Coming out with an entirely new product, coming to market with a new business model, or finding new customers to serve are all examples of indirect strategies.

A good business strategist can also mix both the direct attack and the indirect attack together to beat the competition. The direct attack will be the one the competitor expects, and it focuses the attention of its leaders in the wrong place; the indirect attack then lands, surprising them and throwing them off balance. When off balance, the competitor will not be able to respond effectively, allowing the exploitation of the situation to achieve total victory.

The key to successfully using a combination of both approaches is to take the line of attack the competition least expects. For instance, if you believe your competitor expects your attack in the Australian market in one product category, you might follow through with such a movement. However, you do so only to mask a more substantial blow in a more important product category in Germany.

One can even combine the use of both approaches to repel an attack.

As Sun Tzu said, "The force which confronts the enemy is the normal; "Cheng"; that which goes to his flanks the extraordinary; "Ch'i." No commander of an army can wrest the advantage from the enemy without extraordinary forces. Generally, in battle, use the normal force to engage; use the extraordinary to win."



Mark McNeilly brings Sun Tzu's strategic principles to life as the author of  Sun Tzu and the Art of Business; with TV and radio interviews and with seminar presentations. For more information visit www.suntzu1.com

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