The art of collaboration or the art of war?

Many of us have read books applying Sun Zi’s ‘Art of War’ to business. In a recent talk I attended at the National University of Singapore the Vice-Dean of the Business School launched his new book Zheng He’s ‘Art of Collaboration’.  Prof. Hum Sin Hoon has applied the thinking from the voyages of the great seafarer Zheng He from 1400s China to modern day business. He argues that the art of collaboration suits many of today’s complex business situations better than the art of war. He believes that business networks and relationships are much more complex and intricate than in the past.  This means that the battle lines are not always clear.

Zheng He led one of the world’s ocean going fleets during under Emperor Yongle. His fleet consisted of up to 300 ships and 27,000 crew, a size similar to many of today’s organisations. Zheng He was successful in developing trade between China and SE Asia. To put this achievement into perspective, other famous navigators such as Columbus, Magellan or Da Gama only had 4-5 ships and crew of 200-300.  Zheng He was foremost a military man and leading these trade missions was a big step-up from fighting land-based battles.  Like many people stepping up to a new and bigger role, he would have needed to make some adjustments to his leadership style and thinking.

The key principles of the ‘Art of Collaboration’

Prof. Hum Sim Hoon has identifed the 4 Cs of Collaboration; Capability Building, Co-ordination, Communication and Continuity.  The first two form the preparation phase of collaboration. Zheng He took time to build up his technical and human capital resources so that he could collaborate from a position of strength. This also included getting the full backing of his boss, Emperor Yongle, who gave him blank scrolls stamped with the imperial scroll so he could issue decrees whilst at sea. He continued to ensure the Emperor’s support through ongoing communication and deferring some crucial decisions to him. Zheng He appears to have mastered the art of managing his boss extremely well. Capability Building also includes getting the right people on board; a top team that shares the vision and the expertise in the organisation to ensure you are in a position of strength.

Co-ordination is about ensuring that your internal resources are working as an integrated whole and are all aligned with your mission. If one department is trying to build a relationship with a party and another department is using the art of war with them, your efforts are going to be wasted.

Communication is the main act of collaboration and has five key parts:

  • Articulate intent – consciously making your purpose and objectives transparent, including your intent to collaborate, is the foundation for building a partnership.
  • Practice generosity – gift giving paves the way for the relationship and being generous with your time, resources and knowledge is a solid basis for collaboration.
  • Find win-win outcomes – the relationship will not be truly collaborative unless there is a win-win for all parties. Zheng He ensure that the communities he traded with benefited from the relationship with China.
  • Aim for sustainable relationships – evaluate what factors you can control that may damage the relationships you are building.  Take early action to sustain your collaboration if you can.  Of course some things may be out of your control such as major economic factors, but address the issues that you can control.
  • Cultivate trust – act with integrity and back up your words with your actions. Trust is at the heart of all relationships and it takes time to build and can be damaged easily.  Build a reputation for following through on your commitments and stated intent.

Continuity is the final C of the model and it reinforces the point that collaboration cannot be built overnight.  It takes consistent effort and purpose.  Zheng He made 6 voyages almost consecutively because he knew making one visit was not sufficient to sustain the relationship.  During his seven voyages over 28 years, he visited and revisited 30 cities or countries.

Mutually exclusive?

So are the art of war and the art of collaboration mutually exclusive?  I don’t think so.  It would be naive to think that in a market economy that you don’t need to aggressively compete, and the art of war may be useful in that context. But in today’s environment where the lines between competitors, customers, and partners can become blurred, it may not always be appropriate.  This is where the art of collaboration can provide a different way of thinking about situations that will give you more options to choose from when considering your approach.

Both the art of war and the art of collaboration are built on Confucian philosophy but the intent of the approaches is different.  Sun Zi assumed that no win-win outcome was possible but he also believed that attacking cities directly was a last resort. The aim of the art of war was to subdue the enemy without destroying the value of their resources. If he could win against an enemy without destroying all their resources he would pursue that outcome first. There are some business circumstances when this is the appropriate approach.

Zheng He sought out a win-win outcome that created value for all parties if he could.  He wasn’t above taking aggressive action if it was needed, such as attacking the pirates who were disturbing his trade routes.  However, the pirates were putting at risk his whole collaborative approach to trade and he had the resources to protect both his and his partners interests.

Healthy competition can be good for business but if you are going down a path of unhealthy competition, where no-one is going to benefit, perhaps it’s time consider the art of collaboration instead.