The Art of War^WEngineering?


Does Sun Tzu's venerable classic "The Art of War" apply to the discipline of engineering? Who (or what) is "the enemy"? And "spies"? Huh? But there is wisdom to be had.

I suppose starting at the beginning is best...

Chapter 1. Laying Plans

The state is your company. The field or ground would be either your development environment, or the whole development ecosystem in which you and your tools exist.

"The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors": One is "the moral law", which we will consider to be loyalty to your company. Two is "heaven" or time and environmental conditions. Three is "earth" which "comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death." Pretty heavy! Four is "the Commander" which "stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness." This is not just your CEO. This is virtue in you too. Five is "method and discipline" - something that makes sense to the engineer for sure! But for Sun Tzu, this is at a higher level - "proper subdivisions [and] graduations" in armies and ranks, infrastructure maintenance, and control of expenditure.

So take heed: "These five heads should be familiar to every [person]: he [or she] who knows them will be victorious; he [or she] who knows them not will fail."

Sun Tzu then goes on for a bit, explaining how to forecast victory. For the engineer in us, we can forecast victory by similar means, but in our context, and not that of a military general.

In all cases, "one should modify one's plans when circumstances are favorable." To be victorious, don't stagnate. Be flexible.

Then he says that "all warfare is based on deception", and goes on to describe how to handle "the enemy."

Now I am not sure how to understand the concept of "deception" in the context of engineering, to be honest. But I think that if there is any enemy, it is ourselves! That is, our self-critical mind that interferes with our potential. See The Inner Game of Music for more on this idea of the "two selves." But anyway, Sun Tzu's advice for deceiving and antagonizing "the enemy" are just not applicable to engineering, in my opinion.

Therefore, I will just skip over passages that I cannot interpret.

Chapter 2. Waging War

For us, the words war and fighting mean actual engineering - i.e. doing things, building tools, etc. The word military refers to the discipline of engineering, itself.

Sun Tzu says, "When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men's weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength." For us, this means that personal energy and motivation will be eroded if the project is huge and not divided into tractable chunks. Also, "if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain." - So the funding/need for the project may evaporate!

"Now, when your weapons are dulled, your ardor damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue." Oh no! The enemy will prevail! That is, we will succumb to the pressure, exhaustion, lack of preparation, and other essentials (yet to be discussed).

As an observation, Sun Tzu says, "There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare." There is no company that benefits from a never-ending project with no deliverables.

Ok. More things that are not applicable to the engineer... Let's see...

Sun Tzu says, "Now in order to kill the enemy, our men must be roused to anger; that there may be advantage from defeating the enemy, they must have their rewards." If the enemy is the critical-self, defeating it means overcoming the obstacles used to impede our progress and squelch our potential. Having their "rewards" might mean to not be pestered by them - the critical-self. Hmmm.

Another observation: "In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns." Seems pretty obvious! Get the job done in a timely manner, not dragged out over an extended period.

Chapter 3. Attack by Stratagem

Sun Tzu says, "Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy's plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy's forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy's army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities." This is about psychology for us. When "the enemy" is our self-critical mind, we want to either ignore ("balk"), prevent ("cut 'em off at the pass"), or use a direct attack - like psychological techniques to interrupt the self-criticism, (e.g. mindful meditation).

Sun Tzu speaks of "besieging walled cities" and maybe that's like trying to reverse engineer a closed-course application? No sure...

Sun Tzu says, "when the army is restless and distrustful, trouble is sure to come" - This is probably obvious, but nothing is left unconsidered in The Art of War.

Ok "there are five essentials for victory: (1) He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight. (2) He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces. (3) He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks. (4) He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared. (5) He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign."

What are these in the mind of an engineer?

  1. Remember that to fight is to engineer, so to not engineer means to do something else for whatever reason - study and read, take a break!
  2. These forces are either your personal development tools and their differing abilities or your coworkers and ...their differing abilities!
  3. Know the company and team goals and be enthusiastic about achieving them.
  4. Study, experiment, rinse, repeat.
  5. Hopefully you are not micromanaged to death.

"Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle." Again, this is psychology. The enemy is your critical self. Know and recognize that interfering self.

Chapter 4. Tactical Dispositions

Sun Tzu says, "In respect of military method, we have, firstly, Measurement; secondly, Estimation of quantity; thirdly, Calculation; fourthly, Balancing of chances; fifthly, Victory." Each depends upon the previous. So to successfully engineer, we must measure, estimate, calculate, and balance chances and options to be "victorious."

Chapter 5. Energy

Sun Tzu says, "Indirect tactics, efficiently applied, are inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and streams; like the sun and moon, they end but to begin anew; like the four seasons, they pass away to return once more." Huh? What are indirect tactics? Hmmm.

He goes on to say, "In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack: the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers. The direct and the indirect lead on to each other in turn. It is like moving in a circle - you never come to an end. Who can exhaust the possibilities of their combination?" So that is, while engineering, you can apply direct or indirect methods to find a solution to a problem. And that they in turn will yield numerous possible "maneuvers" or attempts at solution. Possibly this is using your tools and expertise in new and different permutations? I have to ponder this point...

This is a cool quote: "Energy may be likened to the bending of a crossbow; decision, to the releasing of a trigger."

Sun Tzu says, "The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too much from individuals." While he was speaking of generals and armies, we may view this in terms of our efforts. To solve a problem, use the combined effect of your tools, not just one in isolation.

Chapter 6. Weak Points and Strong


More to come ...