How to Campaign in Contentious Situations

The need to avoid costly conflict.

"Some terrain gives you an advantageous position.
But it gives others an advantageous position as well.
This will be disputed terrain."

Sun Tzu's The Art of War 11:1:15-17

Practical strategy teaches us how to succeed while avoiding costly conflict. One of its critical skills is dealing with contentious situations. During a long campaign, these situations usually arise early on.

The contentious situation arises when we discover that an opportunity is very rewarding, but others discover this as well. There are a number of competitors vying to establish a dominant reward position in these new areas, taking advantage of an opening. An opportunity's obvious potential attracts competitors. I remember the early days of personal computers when computer stores were opening up everywhere. This was a classical contentious situation. The opportunity initially looks like an opening, but because others react to it as we have, the opening is contested.

Positions in these new areas are potentially rewarding, creating the basis for conflict. Since this is an early-stage situation, the extent of the rewards and the costs of harvesting them are unknown. Few of those computer stores were profitable, and they were only profitable for a few years. Those rewards seem available to all of those pursuing them. In other words, no one has control of them and no one has a clear advantage in getting control. The contentious situation tempts people into costly conflict. Those involved focus on the hoped-for rewards, which are apparent, rather than the costs of conflict, which are only discovered painfully through experience.

How do we explore these situations while avoiding costly conflict? Since this is an early stage situation, we want to limit our risks, giving conditions time to develop. If given the time, contentious situations can develop four ways, in a positive ways, into open or intersecting situations, or in a negative ways, into serious or difficult situations.

  1. In contentious situations, we must avoid our instinctual reactions. Our instinct is the flight or fight reflex. We must avoid “flight,” that is, abandoning these opportunities, sitting on the sidelines as they develop. To do so is simply to lose the campaign. However, we also must not fight, exploring these opportunities in a way that avoids conflict with other contenders in the arena.

  2. In contentious situations, we seek to make ourselves less visible as a threat to other competitors. We must not only avoid challenging potential opponents, but we must give them as little incentive as possible to see us as the competition. We keep a low profile in our exploration, avoiding moves that are seen as threatening.

  3. In contentious situations, we seek to make ourselves more visible and more helpful to potential supporters. Practical strategy is about changing how others see us, improving our positions in the minds of those who can reward us. The fact that contentious situations are potentially rewarding means that people are looking to get value out of them. Our job is to help these people. Some of these people may appear to be potential competitors, but we should try to view them as potential supporters, serving them however we can. In many contentious situations, it is not the gold miners who get rich, but those supplying them with the picks and shovels.

  4. In contentious situations, we must stay engaged until conditions evolve. These situations are inherently unstable, like radioactive particles with a short half-life. Battles do not last long, because they are too costly. Wars, that is, the campaigns go on, but not the battles. They are too destructive. Given time, battles burn themselves out, and, if we have stayed engaged, we are in a position to take advantage of the new, less contentious, opportunity.


The most non-intuitive aspect of any practical strategy is the need to avoid costly conflict. We must always remember that our goal is improving our positions in people’s minds. There is only one competitive situation where conflict might be necessary, and contentious situations are not it. The goal here is to use contentious conditions as stepping stones to more advanced situations where knowing the right response is critical to our success. We will be covering the four most important of these, open, intersecting, serious, and difficult situations and the proper responses to each over the next four weeks. These four articles will be limited to paid subscribers only.


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