Book Review July/August 2004
The Art of the Advantage —36 Strategies to Seize the Competitive Edge
Author: Kaihan Krippendorff
Publisher: Thomson Texere
$29.95 (hard cover)
Reviewed by Soroya Brantley
Most of us are schooled from childhood in how to behave appropriately in various situations. We have set protocols for what to do and when, protocols that extend into the business world. With his book, The Art of the Advantage—36 Strategies to Seize the Competitive Edge, Kaihan Krippendorff sets out to challenge such static thinking, particularly in business today. To this end, Krippendorff incorporates the teachings from an ancient Chinese text, “The 36 Stratagems,” a compilation of tactics for gaining, expanding or retaining power.
Krippendorff’s premise is simple: Examine “The 36 Stratagems” and apply them to Western business. In The Art of the Advantage, he discusses each stratagem and provides examples of how that stratagem could be applicable to businesses today. Krippendorff uses case studies of major corporations, such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Microsoft and Intel, to show the pertinence and practical use of ancient Chinese philosophy. The Art of the Advantage is divided into four main sections—Yin Yang (Polarity), Wu Wei (Go With the Grain), Wu Chang (Continuous Change) and Shang Bing Wu Bing (Indirect Action).
Yin Yang. Polarity is an idea that may be strange to most Westerners. Instead of trying to obtain good while avoiding bad, as we have been taught all our lives, this principle suggests that we work with the laws of nature that bind good and bad together to achieve a balance. There can be no profit without loss or strength without competition. One stratagem that falls under this principle is “to catch something, first let it go,” which Krippendorff describes using the Pepsi-Coke war. The idea is that while both companies have enjoyed the upper hand at various times, neither has made a decisive move to crush the other. This is in keeping with polarity’s idea that sometimes more success results from coexisting. Other stratagems under this principle include “kill with a borrowed knife.”
Wu Wei. “Go with the grain” advocates yielding to nature. Instead of the Western belief that change will not happen unless we overcome obstacles, this principle sees the world as ever changing and suggests that we can have influence with minimal effort if we exert ourselves wisely. One stratagem under this principle is “remove the wood from under the pot,” which involves attacking the source of a competitor’s power. Krippendorff uses the example of Minnetonka, the maker of Softsoap. As a small company, Minnetonka realized that powerful companies like Procter & Gamble would take over its market for liquid soap. Instead of going head-to-head with these powerhouses, Minnetonka locked the pump manufacturers into long-term contracts to hinder competition. Other stratagems that incorporate Wu Wei include “loot a burning house” and “feign madness but keep your balance.”
Wu Chang. “Continuous change” points out the restrictive nature of our mental model of what change should be. While it may not be wrong, this mental model makes us rigid and predictable, which reduces our competitiveness. The stratagem, “watch the fire from the other shore,” encourages us to wait for the competition’s existing internal conflict to build, as it could eventually destroy itself. Epson dominated the dot-matrix printer market until it decided to aggressively pursue the laser printer market. When it introduced a laser printer at reduced cost, prices fell, making the printer a viable substitute for the dot matrix. Hence, Epson lost its original market and was unable to stand up to Hewlett-Packard in the laser market. Other stratagems include “borrow a corpse for the soul’s return.”
Shang Bing Wu Bing. “Indirect action,” the final philosophy, advocates exactly that—indirect action. The general rule in the West is that if we can beat an adversary, attack. While we view inaction as weakness, the Chinese embrace it. The stratagem, “fool the emperor and cross the sea,” endorses the premise that it is best to hide things in the open by cloaking them in normalcy. When the Walt Disney Co. needed land for Disney World, it purchased the land piece by piece through anonymous buyers so that landowners would not raise their prices. Although 30,000 acres were purchased, nobody connected the dots. Other stratagems include “create something out of nothing.”
The Art of the Advantage is a fascinating read. Although somewhat dense at times, Krippendorff’s use of familiar companies to explain the stratagems makes it less intimidating. He clearly lays out his case for the effectiveness of ancient Chinese philosophy in business. There is enough in this book to suggest that if we are able to look beyond the conventional Western ways of doing things, there is a world of new possibilities out there.