How to Beat the Competition: 3 Lessons From War

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The 33 Strategies of War" by Robert Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What war strategies can be applied to business? When you’re ready to secure victory, what can you learn from war?

Robert Greene asserts that life—including business—is a war between you and the forces or entities that seek to control you, hold you back, or destroy you. To be successful, you need to win the war, and to win the war you need winning strategies. Greene discusses three war strategies you can use to beat out the competition for good: targeting the source of your enemy’s power; targeting a vulnerable spot; and breaking down a problem, eliminating one piece at a time.

Read more to learn about these three strategies for how to beat the competition.

How to Beat the Competition

Greene discusses a number of strategic concepts to consider when you’re ready to crush an enemy force (your competition) for good.

Lesson #1: Target the Source of Your Enemy’s Power

First, if you want to know how to beat the competition (“the enemy”), you should consider the root of their power. What is it that truly enables your enemy to stand in your way? For example, perhaps you’re outgunned, but their high-tech weapons are dependent on a steady stream of supplies, so the root of their strength is their supply lines. Cut off their supply lines, and they won’t be able to fight you effectively anymore. 

(Shortform note: Once again, Greene’s strategy of identifying and eliminating the source of your enemy’s power isn’t limited to military applications. Ray Dalio prescribes this same strategy for dealing with problems in organizations and in your personal life. Whenever a problem arises, or something doesn’t go the way you wanted it to, Dalio advises you to ask, “Why?” not just once, but repeatedly, until you get past the symptoms to the source of the problem. Whether the problem is a bad habit, a defective procedure, or something else, conquering the problem at the source is the only sure way of eliminating it.)

Lesson #2: Target a Vulnerable Spot

Greene says you should then consider where your enemy is most vulnerable. Hitting them in a vulnerable spot gives you the opportunity to inflict disproportionately high casualties, improving your odds in the conflict even if the vulnerability isn’t the root of their strength (as in the previous tip). 

Green explains that in traditional warfare, an army had a well-defined front, but its flank (sides) and rear were more vulnerable. In a typical flanking maneuver, you would send a small portion of your force to attack the enemy head-on, while the rest of your force circled around to attack them from the side or the rear. 

With the enemy’s attention focused on the fighting at the front, their sides and rear would be left vulnerable, and it would take time for them to re-orient toward the new threat when your flanking force arrived. This window of vulnerability allowed you to inflict heavy casualties relatively easily. Generalizing this strategy, Greene recommends finding ways to get around your enemy’s frontal defenses.

Exploit Vulnerabilities With Hidden Strength

Richard Rumelt corroborates Greene’s advice on targeting your enemy’s vulnerabilities in Good Strategy Bad Strategy. Moreover, he adds that your enemy’s greatest vulnerabilities are the ones he doesn’t know about. If your enemy has known vulnerabilities, he will likely try to guard them somehow, but if you identify weaknesses that he didn’t know he had, you can exploit them to full effect. And if you can unleash strengths that your enemy doesn’t know you have against weaknesses that he doesn’t know he has, your attack will be maximally devastating.

For example, suppose you’re in the manufacturing business. Your competitor has a large facility devoted to metal casting machinery, which they see as one of their strengths. You find a way to produce the same product more efficiently using a different process, such as sheet metal stamping instead of casting. Now you can undercut your competitor’s prices, and their investment in casting equipment makes it difficult for them to retool for the new production method—what they thought was a strength turned out to be a weakness.

Lesson #3: Break Down the Problem, Eliminating One Piece at a Time

According to Greene, one of the most decisive ways to defeat an enemy force is to surround small units of that force, isolating them and crushing them one at a time. By sending a large portion of your army against a small portion of your enemy’s army, you improve your odds of winning. 

(Shortform note: This is a crucial element of Geoffrey Moore’s strategy for Crossing the Chasm, or breaking into the mainstream market with an innovative product. Moore observes that mainstream customers tend to buy from market leaders based on their reputation. Thus, he advises you to pick one specific niche and focus all your resources on becoming the undisputed leader in that particular niche. Once you’ve dominated that niche, you pick another niche that you can adapt your product to, and repeat the process until you dominate the entire market.)

Furthermore, Greene argues that when the target group realizes that they are cut off from the rest of their army, anxiety or even panic will set in. A panicked soldier doesn’t fight well, and makes irrational decisions, making it easier for you to defeat them.

However, another piece of Greene’s advice suggests that this strategy has the potential to backfire. In the context of motivating your own troops, Greene explains that situations where retreat or relief is not an option can drive people to fight so desperately that they are almost invincible. Thus, when you isolate an enemy unit by surrounding them, they may panic or see the situation as hopeless, making them easier to defeat—or, they may become more self-reliant and resourceful out of necessity, making them harder to defeat.

Test Anxiety Illustrates the Danger of Isolating an Opponent

Studies of academic testing corroborate the principle that soldiers cut off from help may either panic or rise to the challenge of battle. Educator Barbara Oakley asserts that the physical effects of test anxiety can either increase or decrease your performance, depending on how you process it.

It’s normal to experience symptoms of anxiety like sweaty palms and butterflies in your stomach before an exam. If you tell yourself these symptoms mean that you’re excited to do your best on the test, the hormones that cause them will actually enhance your performance. But if you think the symptoms mean you’re worried about the test, then the same hormones will amplify your worry instead, degrading your performance.

This is likely the same phenomenon that Greene observed in a military context: Soldiers facing overwhelming odds with no way out surely experience more powerful symptoms of anxiety than students facing a test. As with the students, the anxiety may either enhance or degrade the soldiers’ fighting abilities, depending on how they process it.
How to Beat the Competition: 3 Lessons From War

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Here's what you'll find in our full The 33 Strategies of War summary:

  • How to win the war between you and those that seek to control you
  • Insights based on military history, historic writings, and modern-day business dealings
  • Why the little guy may actually have the biggest advantage

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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