Sun Tzu’s famous military treatise, The Art of War, is one of the world’s most frequently referenced leadership texts. Yet what is not so widely known is that his thinking was influenced by a nascent Taoism, which was ultimately incorporated into the Zen tradition. When we consider Sun Tzu’s advice in the light of a Taoist or Zen philosophy, we can glean some simple but powerful organisational design insights.

We must begin by understanding the Tao, which could be roughly translated as “the way” or “the path”.

In essence it can be seen as the flow of the universe or, simply put, the way the world really works.

Taoists and Zen practitioners alike accept the world for the way it is, and do not live in a fantasy world of maybe — neither should the organisational designer.

Go with the flow

One of the key realities to accept is that the world is in constant flux. Sun Tzu said: “Just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.”  Similarly, we need to design our organisations with this flux in mind. In the words of one typically contradictory Zen proverb “Only when you can be extremely pliable and soft can you be extremely hard and strong”. In modern parlance this translates to designing an agile enterprise. So what advice does Sun Tzu have on such a task?

Well, he would advise against an effort in “reinforcing every part” of the organisation, because we would only “weaken every part.” So trying to do everything at once is not a way to be flexible. Rather, Sun Tzu encourages us to deliberate on multiple aspects of what we would today call the operating model. In particular, he encourages us to address structures (his ‘military’), people (his ‘army’), culture (his ‘terrain), competitors (his ‘enemy’), and leadership (his ‘commander’). So, his guidance is to consider multiple aspects of what makes an organisation actually work, not to rely on structure in isolation.

Yet he does have serious advice to give on combining the elements of an enterprise. Importantly we must ensure that no role or function is overly stretched, as he perceived exhaustion itself to be a serious impediment. “Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.” In today’s world this has significant implications.

For instance, Lean Theory would have us always plan for a reserve. This does not mean that our organisation should be over-resourced, but rather that we can redirect resources at short notice to urgent activities, at least for a limited period of time. The best way to do this is to understand which competency groupings are closely enough aligned that you could reasonably cross-train. For example, when some airlines have faced industrial action, office staff who understand booking systems have worked on check-in desks. Not something one would want to continue indefinitely, but it might be the way to get through a short-term crisis.

Yet cross-training is not a solution for all situations. For instance, when there is high staff turnover, and the potential for rapid increases in demand, you will need other strategies. One option is to design high turnover roles such as in call centres, so that they have a short mean time to competency. In other words, you can quickly train staff.

Furthermore, creating pools of competent people who can share the load effectively gives enormous flexibility and productivity advantages. This is what we now know as resource balancing, and can be enhanced by means of modern workflow technologies. So, one job for the intrepid organisational designer is to identify those pools, and to link them into functions with the right technology support.

Therefore, there is a Zen to organisational design, and ancient masters can still be a source of both ideas and inspiration. Those wishing to win in a rapidly changing world might well start their organisational deliberations now. For, as Sun Tzu said “Plan for what it is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small.”