Positioning for the melee

Venkatesh Rao has another thought provoking post up at his Tempo blog. Go take a look and then come back here … Play close attention to his distinction between “planning” and “positioning” near the bottom of the piece.

Rao’s concept of positioning & melee moves seems similar to the military’s concepts of operational and tactical levels of war. Even more interesting for business — where these concepts of levels apply only by analogy — they appear to be closely related to shih, Sun Tzu’s framework for employing force or energy.  For those of you not familiar with shih, it’s the title of the fifth chapter of The Art of War and encompasses a variety of concepts including zheng / qi (cheng / ch’i). For an excellent intro, see David Lai’s paper “Learning from the Stones,” available from the Federation of American Scientists.

The concept of positioning moves is inherent in shih, in creating configurations of great potential. Or, as Gimian and Boyce (The Rules of Victory) explain:

In employing shih, each action is one step in a process that changes the ground, reorients the relationship among things, and creates different possibilities. (p. 121)

A lot of this activity is zheng — according with the opponents’ expectations in order to set them up for decisive strikes. At other times, we may just be developing the situation, trying to create ambiguity and anxiety, and probing opponents to force them to tell us something about their intentions and capabilities (As Gimian and Boyce put it, “if you can’t get destination, go for direction.” p. 126)

If these activities don’t cause the opponent to give up or panic or otherwise quit providing effective opposition (and this is Sun Tzu’s ideal, of course), then we look for opportunities to release the potential energy we have built up in as short, abrupt, “fast transient” a manner as possible, as “when strike of a hawk breaks the back of its prey.” (Griffith trans., 92)

Businesses can think in these terms without resorting to analogies. Positioning, for example, often requires spending resources well in advance of what Rao calls a melee move — a product launch, for example. A lot of this can indeed “be driven by tractable computing with information you possess.” In fact, given the cost and lead times involved, there is no other way, and for these activities, planning is also essential. But positioning is at least as much organizational and mental, where the focus is on reducing the chaos inherent in the execution / strike phase so that the product hits the market like Sun Tzu’s hawk:

  • design is insanely great (to coin a phrase)
  • introduced on schedule, exceeding expected quality
  • sales people ready to sell
  • channel partners fired up (and ready)
  • supply chain ready to deliver over a range of demand curves
  • customer service trained and motivated
  • marketing, advertising, and PR harmonized and operating
  • you get the idea

Hence, melee, and in business, unlike war, the idea of no melee is not even an ideal.  Point is, and I hope this what Venkatesh is driving at, it’s not positioning versus execution/melee, but that these two categories must work in harmony. How, for example, would you classify kaizen? Such harmony cannot be ordered from the top (or planned) but must be built into the very DNA of the organization. This is precisely what the integrated Toyota Development and Production Systems and similar lean philosophies aim to do, and in fact, this is a good way to define them. But we can talk about that another time.

[Thanks to Cameron Schaefer, whose comment on cheng/ch’i got me thinking about shih, and to Mark Safranski for his post on zenpundit.]

2 thoughts on “Positioning for the melee

  1. Thanks for elaborating on the business application of the concept. You read it right. I view positioning+melee as a pair of complementary rather than opposed concepts. If there is an opposition it is probably (positioning+melee) vs. (planning+execution). I think the former is fundamentally a richer, more expressive framework.

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