If we believe Robert Greene, life is dominated by fierce war – and he does not only refer to obvious events such as World War II or the Gulf Wars, but also to politics, jobs and even the daily interactions with your significant other.
Left aside whether or not his notion corresponds to reality, it is indeed possible to apply many of the strategies traditionally employed in warfare to other fields including software development. In his book The 33 Strategies of War, Robert Greene explains his extended conception on the term war, which is not restricted to military conflicts, and describes various methods that may be utilized not only to win a battle, but also to gain advantage in everyday life. His advice is backed by detailed historic examples originating from famous military leaders like Sun Tsu, influential politicans like Franklin D. Roosevelt and even successful movie directors like Alfred Hitchcock.
While it is clear that Greene’s methods are applicable to diplomacy and politics, their application in the field of software development may seem slightly odd. Hence, I will give two specific examples from the book to explain my view.
The Grand Strategy
Alexander the Great became king of Macedon at the young age of twenty, and one of his first actions was to propose a crusade against Persia, the Greek’s nemesis. He was warned that the Persian navy was strong in the Mediterranean Sea and that he should strengthen the Greek navy so as to attack the Persians both by land and by sea. Nevertheless, he boldly set off with an army of 35,000 Greeks and marched straight into Asia Minor – and in the first encounter, he inflicted a devastating defeat on the Persians.
Now, his advisors were delighted and urged him to head into the heart of Persia. However, instead of delivering the finishing blow, he turned south, conquering some cities here and there, leading his army through Phoenicia into Egypt – and by taking Persia’s major ports, he disabled them from using their fleet. Furthermore, the Egyptians hated the Persians and welcomed Alexander, so that he was free to use their wealth of grain in order to feed his army.
Still, he did not move against the Persian king, Darius, but started to engage in politics. By building on the Persion government system, changing merely its unpopular characteristics, he was able to stabilize the captured regions and to consolidate his power. It was not before 331 B. C., two years after the start of his campaign, that he finally marched on the main Persian force.
While Alexander might have been able to defeat Darius right from the start, this success would probably not have lasted for a long time. Without taking the time to bring the conquered regions under control, his empire could easily have collapsed. Besides, the time worked in his favor: Cut off from the Egyptian wealth and the subdued cities, the Persian realm faltered.
One of Greene’s strongest points is the notion of the Grand Strategy: If you engage in a battle which does not serve a major purpose, its outcome is meaningless. Like Alexander, whose actions were all targeted on establishing a Macedonian empire, it is crucial to focus on the big picture.
It is easy to see that these guidelines are not only useful in warfare, but rather in any kind of project work – including software projects. While one has to tackle the main tasks at some point, it is important to approach it reasoned, not rashly. If anaction is not directed towards the aim of the project, one will be distracted and endager its execution by wasting resources.
The Samurai Musashi
Miyamoto Musashi, a renowned warrior and duellist, lived in Japan during the late 16th and the early 17th century. Once, he was challenged by Matashichiro, another samurai whose father and brother had already been killed by Musashi. In spite of the warning of friends that it might be a trap, he decided to oppose his enemy, however, he did prepare himself.
For his previous duels, he had arrived exorbitantly late, making his opponents lose their temper and, hence, the control over the fight. Instead, this time he appeared at the scene hours before the agreed time, hid behind some bushes and waited. And indeed, Matashichiro arrived with a small troop to ambush Musashi – but using the element of surprise, he could defeat them all.
Some time later, another warrior caught Musashi’s interest. Shishido Baiken used a kusarigama, a chain-sickle, to fight and had been undefeated so far. The chain-sickle seemed to be superior to swords: The chain offered greater range and could bind an enemy’s weapon, whereupon the sickle would deal the finishing blow. But even Baiken was thrown off his guard; Musashi showed up armed with a shortsword along with the traditional katana – and this allowed him to counter the kusarigama.
A further remarkable opponent of Musashi was the samurai Sasaki Ganryu, who wore a nodachi, a sword longer than the usual katanas. Again, Musashi changed his tactics: He faced Ganryu with an oar he had turned into a weapon. Exploiting the unmatched range of the oar, he could easily win the fight.
The characteristic that distinguished Musashi from his adversaries most was not his skill, but that he excelled at adapting his actions to his surroundings. Even though he was an outstanding swordsman, he did not hesitate to follow different paths, if necessary. Education and training facilitate becoming successful, but one has to keep an open mind to change.
Relating to software development, it does not mean that we have to start afresh all the time we begin a new project. Nevertheless, it is dangerous if one clings to outdated technologies and procedures, sometimes may be helpful to regard a situation like a child, without any assumptions. In this manner, it is probably possible to learn along the way.
Greene’s book is a very interesting read and even though in my view one should take its content with a pinch of salt, it is a nice opportunity to broaden one’s horizon. The book contains far more than I addressed in this article and I think most of its findings are indeed in one way or another applicable to everyday life.