“Grounding” Radical Change
Military frameworks have often been used to help guide strategic thinking in business. The use of Sun Tzu’s (Master Sun’s) descriptions of the different “grounds” that militaries may encounter can provide strategic insight for dealing with radical changes in a business.
Levinthal described business landscapes as being“rugged.” The concept is relatively easy to visualize: imagine a mountainous area where the height of a peak is representative of the success (profitability) of any business that can make it up to that level. Businesses are constantly trying to maximize their profitability by making adjustments in how they do business in order to get to the highest part of the peak possible.
Unfortunately, the many uncertainties in the real world mean that businesses don’t always know where the peaks are, and even when they get to the top of one peak, they may simply find themselves on the foothill of a larger, better mountain. Worse, the hills and mountains constantly move and fluctuate making yesterday’s peak tomorrow’s valley.
Due to the dynamic and rugged nature of the landscape, businesses occasionally need to make radical changes to survive. This is akin to abandoning a peak upon which the business had established itself and trying to hop across to another. Inevitably, this requires descending from their success and trudging through a darkened valley. Since many businesses fail in these valleys, and since stakeholders tend to favor safer moves to more radical ones, business leaders rarely want to make such perilous journeys, no matter how necessary.
To overcome these problems, business leaders need to take a page out of Sun Tzu’s piece, The Art of War. One of the most timeless of military classics, it contains a broad range of short platitudes that are easily understood and applied to competitive situations. The principles we will focus on will be Sun Tzu’s analysis of the 9 different grounds that military forces can encounter.
The grounds described by Sun Tzu are not only physical descriptions, but descriptions of emotional and mental states as well. They capture not only the earth upon which soldiers walk, but the gumption the soldiers have for the fight, and the risks associated with different maneuvers and operations in the given context. The two grounds most important to our analysis of radical change in business are what Sun Tzu calls (as best as translators tell us) “death ground” and “bad ground.”
“Death ground” is predominantly a state of mind and emotion. It refers not only to a physical situation where retreat is impossible, but a military situation where being attacked in inevitable and surrender is not viable. In these circumstances, soldiers recognize that their only hope is to fight hard, and fight now. On death ground, soldiers fight with their greatest furiosity, valor, and focus. Belligerents should avoid putting their enemies on death ground since battles against such enemies can be extremely costly and markedly more difficult than in other situations.
When facing a radical change in business, executives need to convince their stakeholders that they stand on “death ground.” Unless the shareholders believe that the company cannot be saved—be it through acquisition, incremental improvements, or patience—the shareholders will certainly resist any proposition that may mean taking serious losses to invoke a risky maneuver. Employees also need to be convinced that their jobs and livelihood depend on taking up the fight hard, and taking it up now. Unless the innate fervor of the constituents can be tapped by the leaders, radical changes will probably be doomed to fail.
After the change is initiated, leaders need to combine a continued sense of “death ground” with “bad ground.” Sun Tzu refers to “bad ground” almost exclusively in a physical sense. It refers to difficult mountainous pathways, rocky terrain, heavily forested areas, and anything else that can make movement difficult. The prescribed solution when leaders find “bad ground” is to keep moving or avoid encampment. Continuing motion, even long after the change has been initiated, is exactly what business leaders need to ensure.
Many large organizational changes die due to premature declaration of victory, or a loss of steam and drive to continue the change process. Change takes a significant amount of time, and usually requires navigating seriously treacherous and foggy areas. Indeed, the rugged landscape analogy is very fitting for the “bad ground” framework since companies will be trying to climb a conceptual peak as they trudge through “valleys” and perhaps across multiple “mountain ranges.” Leaders must learn to recognize that they stand on “bad ground” for months or years after they begin to move their troops.
By invoking “death ground” to win stakeholders and recognizing the need to adapt to the “bad ground” they will end up traveling through, business leaders can increase their chances at successful organizational change. Clearly, all other change processes will need to be executed, and executed well, but Sun Tzu’s frameworks on “grounds” can help overcome the “people problems” that can plague efforts at major organizational change.
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