Emptiness as Weakness and Need and Fullness as Strength
Thus far, we have not discussed an important concept in practical strategy because it is a bit abstract. However, recently, I had an email exchange with a local reporter here in Las Vegas covering politics. At the beginning of his article, he paraphrased the Sun Tzu quote:
Manage your military position like water.
Water takes every shape.
It avoids the high and moves to the low.
Your war can take any shape.
It must avoid the strong and strike the weak.
The Chinese characters translated as “strong” and “weak” also mean “full” and “empty.” This reporter then began his article with the line:
In politics, as in war, you must defend where you are empty.
I emailed him, pointing out that this is exactly the opposite of Sun Tzu’s advice.
He wrote back with a good question.
If Sun Tzu counsels to attack the empty, should not the defenders defend there?
This is a good question because it is the source of a common strategic mistake. People think that they cannot have weaknesses if they want to be successful. But the fact is that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. We are all a combination of knowledge and ignorance.
Emptiness as Weakness
In the terms of strategy, "empty" areas are, by their nature, difficult, costly, or impossible to occupy and defend. Sometimes, they are impossible to defend because we don’t recognize them. Other times, the weakness is in our decision-making because we could address a vulnerability but choose not to.
However, we cannot eliminate weakness. Much of Sun Tzu's strategy is economic. All of us have limited resources. Many, many empty areas are too costly to occupy. By trying to defend them, we make ourselves much weaker elsewhere. Our most limited resource is our personal time. We all only get 24 hours in a day. For example, if we are lacking some needed skill, it requires time and effort to become competent in it. It takes about ten thousand hours of practice to become truly proficient. During our lives, we can, at most, only truly master a handful of skills.
The basic rule is that no one can defend everywhere. We cannot be everywhere at once. No one can be strong in every area. Many types of strength, create corresponding weaknesses. For example, large competitors have more resources but they are slow to change. Small competitors lack resources but they can adapt quickly. We cannot be both big and quick at the same time. So, everyone has strong points and weak ones. No one can be all things to all people. We certainly cannot know everything.
So we must know our opponents and know ourselves. We must understand our strengths and weaknesses to position ourselves against our rivals. Competitors skilled at emphasizing their strengths against opposing weaknesses win the support of those making decisions about who to support.
Emptiness as Need
Emptiness is also the source of all our opportunities. Rivals are not the only ones with weaknesses and strengths. All competition is a comparison. Those making a comparison among alternatives also have an emptiness that they want to fill. We need the strength of others. If we don’t have time to master a skill, we can hire those that do. Every interaction is an exchange of emptiness for strength. To the degree that we have choices, each of these interactions is a competition among our alternatives.
Every competition has "judges" who are those who choose who to support or oppose by comparing their options. We are judges in some comparisons. We are those being judged in others. Businesses and products are judged by customers. Our emptiness as customers is our need for products and services. Our fullness is the money we have to spend. Workers are judged by employers. Our fullness as employees is the hours we have in a workday. Our emptiness is our need for income. Our emptiness as voters is our need for the most valuable government services per tax dollar. Our fullness is our ability to cast a vote.
Good strategy means making good choices about how we position ourselves in the minds of others.
First, it means choosing the right contest with the right competitive ground, with judges who have the emptiness we can best fill. When Sun Tzu says that we should look for an empty battlefield and get to it first, he is talking the search for these opportunities. Strategically, this is known as our choice of the right competitive ground.
After choosing our ground, successful positioning requires contrasting our strengths against the weaknesses of those to whom we compared. How we frame that comparison determines how it is seen (see this article). If two people have similar ranges of strengths and weaknesses, the one who understands how positions are viewed can tilt the comparison between them.
Winning a position is only the first step of leveraging strength against weakness. We must then advance our position over time. This requires identifying openings, that is, the emptiness places around us, that allows us to move or expand our position the most easily. It is only an opening or an opportunity if we have the excess resources, that is, excess fullness, to pursue it.
We can choose to see our world in many different ways. Looking at the world strategically often requires looking at it from the perspective of emptiness and fullness. Every competitive position has both, and their nature determines the exchanges among them, including our own advances, which are based on these exchanges.