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Comparison is Competition 1: The Elements
This series of articles discusses Sun Tzu’s principles with a sharp focus on making the appropriate comparisons. Most of us never learn how to do this. In this series, we look at Sun Tzu’s principles through the lens of comparison. We begin with the strategy basics. This series is a good starting point both for those just beginning their explorations of strategy and for those who want to review and refresh their knowledge. All of this article is open to the public, but four out of five future articles have reserved parts to reward our paid subscribers.
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The Fundamental Nature of Comparison
All competitions are comparisons. Cooperation is not the opposite of competition. It is simply another means of advancing the positions by which we are compared. Those being compared are competitors. Competitors are not enemies as much as rivals. Such comparisons are natural and unavoidable. Anyone who pretends that everyone isn’t comparing everything and everybody at all times is either a fool or a liar. Life is not a war, but it is a contest, a contest with limited rewards.
How fundamental is the ability to compare? Without it, no living organisms would exist. To survive, all living things must repair damaged DNA, but they don’t have the resources to repair every strand perfectly on a continual basis. So, do they repair different strands in a certain order or pick strands randomly to repair? After all, these repair mechanisms are molecular machines. They are far from simple, but these machines can’t make choices about which part of the DNA to repair, or can they?
We have no idea how, but these machines do use their limited resources selectively. How do we know? They don’t repair all DNA with the same level of accuracy. The most basic DNA needed for survival is repaired with nearly a hundred percent accuracy. However, less important DNA is repaired less accurately. The more marginal the DNA, the less accurate its repairs are. The DNA needed to replicate heart muscles is repaired well. That for producing our hair? Not so much as we might like.
This fact means all living things, on the level of their proteins, make comparisons. This is how fundamental comparisons are to life. This also means that competition starts at the level of complex molecular machines. The strands of DNA are competing for attention from repair systems. These repair systems have their own priorities, a hierarchy, and all strands of DNA are not treated equally.
Comparison is Overlooked
Many people suggest that there are no limits on our number of alternatives, that the way to make the best decisions is to think outside the box. This is a low success strategy. We cannot compare an unknown number of alternatives. We are trained to think “new ideas” are better. The more revolutionary they are, the better. New ideas cannot be compared because their effectiveness is unknown without testing. Most new ideas are simply wrong. They cost time and resources only to fail. Ninety percent of new books never sell more than two hundred copies. Eighty percent of new businesses fail within two years.
If we don’t build on proven methods, we choose to make our own mistakes instead of learning from the mistakes of others. Every success formula is complicated, having many different parts and processes, any of which can fail. We must improve one of these components at a time, but, before we can do that, we must know a working formula.
The core of what Sun Tzu taught is that good decision-making in competitive situations depends on knowing what has worked in the past and why. His strateguc methods were proven in practice, but they also make sense in terms of how our minds are shaped to fit our natural world. Sun Tzu saw that these skills, natural and learned, mitigate our problem of not knowing the future. The system starts by comparing the few things that we can know.
We cannot compare organizations and people by all of their differences. This requires too much information, more than our minds can handle. We therefore see competitors in terms of “positions,” a mental tool that can be analyzed because it is understood in terms of only five characteristics.
We naturally identify what is real by a “quintangulation,” a triangulation from five angles instead of three. Our physical form of quintangulation is our five senses. If one of our senses detects something that cannot be confirmed by our other senses, we don’t and shouldn’t trust it. Modeled after this natural ability, practical strategy is also based upon a quintangulation, the five dimensions of competitive positions. These elements work because they can more accurately describe our positions in the real world than looking at one or two dimensions or attempting to analyze a random number of them.
Our larger environment is divided into ground and climate. These are also known as the stable and the changing, the earth and sky, logic and emotion, place and time. Every competitor has both a physical and psychological position in these two dimensions, but so does every event, competitive arena, and resource. These dimensions are as different as up and down. So, they are compared in different ways.
Competitors are also divided into two parts, command and methods, also known as personality and skills, decision making and learning, internal resources and resources from relationships. They also include our physical and psychological natures that come both from our physical natures, a type of ground, and the changes that we have been through, a type of climate. Every competitor, both individuals and groups, has these two internal aspects.
At the core of these four components are missions: our goals and value systems. These are best understood in playing games. Their missions defined as scoring according to the rules. Every contest has its own missions, its own rules, but few of have rule books. Every organization has its own missions. Within those organizations, every member has their personal goals as well. Competitors don’t have one mission, but they have priorities, a hierarchy of competing missions.
Few people appreciate how competition is based on comparison and how badly needed comparisons are for making good decisions. The rules of practical strategy all tie back to this simple idea.
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