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Reinventing Your Business

Applying the Principles of Martial Arts

I studied martial arts in several states over eight years. I’d love to say that I earned my black belt, but when I moved from Dallas to Chicago and then to Atlanta, I had to begin again at each new studio and work my way up through the ranks. At my last dojo, as I was preparing for my brown belt exam, I blew out my medial meniscus. And that was the end of my martial arts career.

I didn’t stop learning some key lessons from my years in the dojo, though. Coupled with insights gleaned from the classic “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, I recognized that business is a type of warfare, too. There are adversaries and allies, strategies and tactics for moving the good of the business forward, and methodologies for scaling back and regrouping to deal with losses and changing conditions. And sometimes, the catalyst appears out of nowhere and wreaks devastating and long-lasting havoc.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” - Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The Coronavirus pandemic is certainly such an adversary. Pandemics aren’t part of the usual cast of disruptive characters that include new and more agile competitors, restrictive government regulations, unexpected market conditions, new technologies, etc. I doubt very few business models factored in the possibility of a global pandemic that would shut down whole industries and national economies within a very short span of time. Sun Tzu taught that the warrior must know both himself and his adversary to maximize the probability of victory. Unlike with traditional challengers, we know very little of the length and extent of the damage that Corvid-19 will inflict on human society, much less the fatal blows it may deal a multitude of businesses.

A response is still needed, and businesses of all sizes are doing all that they can to figure out how to stay afloat. Like a martial artist, these astute business executives are assessing the challenger and adjusting their corporate responses to reposition for maximum advantage. The biggest challenge is the unknown endurance this virus has to keep employees and customers at home during mandatory shut-downs.

The pandemic will no doubt change how we do business in many ways. Already, there is a tremendous increase in online services, education, and digital business communications that will not entirely dissipate once we can resume more normal business operations. Until a vaccine is developed or medicine is available to drastically reduce the severity of its symptoms, people may not want – or be permitted – to congregate in large numbers. Movie theaters come to mind as one type of business that may suffer greatly in this respect, especially with so much entertainment already widely available online. Many businesses may not survive and those on the cusp may need to reinvent or restructure themselves.

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” - Sun Tzu, The Art of War

A strong adversary quickly exposes our weaknesses, overwhelms our defenses, and exploits our deficiencies. In response, the martial artist who knows his own strengths will capitalize on them. If the roundhouse kick is her strongest offensive strike, she will pivot in the direction to most effectively use it against her opponent. Likewise, successful businesses will know their core competencies, see new opportunities, and determine how to best position themselves in a changed environment. Perhaps they can grow their customer base with a new segment that wants to be served in a different way, i.e., a renowned academic university offering online classes towards a degree program, something it would not have seriously considered before. A business may even discover an inherent strength it hadn’t developed before, one that may be in greater demand in a changed economy than the original product, and therefore the catalyst for redefining the business itself. Examples from the past include 3M (mining company turned multinational conglomerate), Avon (books to cosmetics), and Nokia (from paper mill to mobile communications).

Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.” - Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The martial artist also knows when it’s time to take a step back to avoid a painful encounter. Like the field marshal, it’s time to assess the damage and regroup the forces to take on a stronger position. And to determine the new reality and adjust to what may be a fast-changing situation. A move made without information and planning is a wild, undisciplined strike delivered blindly … and usually to their detriment. The worst attack scenario, says Sun Tzu, is when the attacker knows neither himself nor his adversary. Sometimes the reinvention of a business involves major restructuring, perhaps divesting itself of a no-longer profitable product line. But first, it takes a long hard look at the business itself: its strengths, weaknesses, and potential future vulnerabilities. And the willingness to do what is necessary for its long-term survival. Cost cutting, temporary or permanent reduction of personnel, or consolidation of resources can be painful, but they can also lead to new efficiencies and opportunities for greater growth in the long run.

The experienced martial artist is constantly pivoting, moving in new directions, adapting to changing circumstances, and positioning herself in increasingly more advantageous ways to ensure a victorious outcome. Likewise, the successful business does the same, whether it’s in normal business conditions or once-in-a-century global pandemics. Sometimes, one has to go with the flow of events to see them most clearly and then work to direct those obstacles to their own advantage. But that’s more like Aikido, a totally different martial art and a subject for another day.