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Business War – The differences between real war and business war

Recently I have been contemplating The Art of War by Sun Tzu and attempt to compare ancient warfare knowledge with modern business environment. I realized there are some fundamental differences between the two, which I will list them here.

Tl; dr;

  • Spies are extremely important in real war, while in business it is frowned upon.
  • Physical aspects, e.g., land, river, etc., do not apply in business wars.
  • Using fires and water, there’s an equivalent of that in business wars, but I’ll leave it to future blog posts.

The use of Spies

In conflicts between countries, spies play a major part in obtaining intelligence that are beneficial to win the war. We love seeing movies about spies and special operatives, watching them steal national and corporate secrets so that their employer can win.

This is frowned upon in business. And there are laws around corporate espionage, which further limits the use of spies. In The Art Of War, Sun Tzu mentions 5 different types of spies: Local Spies, Inside Spy, Converted Spy, Doomed Spy, Living Spy. All of them either obtain the information illegally, or bringing wrong information to the other party (this may be legal). From my perspective, only Doomed Spy can be utilized in Business War (officially). I’ll discuss more about the use of spies in future blog posts.

Doomed Spy is the type of spy that was sent to us for espionage. For example, someone from a competitor approaches my company to get information about pricing and internal process, disguised as a potential customer. However, I know that the person is not genuine and deliberately feed him incorrect information so he can report back to the other company. Because he reports incorrect information, his employer is not happy and in ancient time, that mistake could cost him his life, hence the name Doomed Spy.

Physical aspects

In The Art Of War, there are quite a few chapters that discuss the important of locations and grounds. This has limited uses in business and we need to figure out our own definitions. For example, there are 9 ground types in the book, which are all explained in details and what to do when an army is inside those grounds. On another hand, in business wars, there is no such ground in its literal sense.

Let’s have an example: Desperate ground, which is basically a position that the army has to fight to survive and there is no other option. If we project it to business war, and with an example of an empty bank account, we as business owners are desperate. We have to be creative and try to do anything and everything to keep the business going. We can explain the situation to our employees, so they understand that their employment is hanging on their productivity. This can boost morale of the team for a short time and can pull the business out of trouble.

Using Fire and Water

girl in front of a burning house

Business War is not a physical exercise, therefore there is nothing to burn or drown. However, we can examine the nature of Fire and Water and find similar concepts to apply the knowledge in the book. I’ll disclose what I think can replace Fire and Water in business in future blog posts.

In the book, there are different ways to use fire, the general can use fire to kill the army, or burn down supplies, or stop the march of the enemy. Fire doesn’t need to cause direct damage, it can be used as a diversion as well.

As a liberal thinker, I can think of situations where actual fires can be done, but they are all violating the laws and categorized as arson. The following example is not for anyone to try, but I feel like it’s needed to demonstrate the immorality of using actual fire in business.

Let’s consider a factory that manufactures timber, and there is a competitor who enters the same market and needs to capture some market share. Would it be shocking if the existing factory is no longer operational due to an “accidental” fire?  And when the owner struggles to claim insurances and try to rebuild/repair the factory, the competitor jumps in as the life saver of the clients and claims the market share.


The Art Of War is a great book and we can all learn from it. The knowledge is not exclusive to business owners, but you can use it in daily life as well. However, there are discrepancies that one should know and therefore make the adjustments as we go along. In future blog posts I will continue to share my thoughts of how I utilize the book in my business and my life.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” – Sun Tzu

By Tuan Nguyen

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