Steps Towards Business Agility

The Art of Strategy: Landscape

10. How to approach difficult areas

Erik Schön
9 min readMar 20, 2019


Photo: pine watt on Unsplash

What is strategy? Why do you need it? How do you do it? And, how can you be more certain to succeed? The Art of Strategy provides timeless answers to these eternal questions. It is a modern reading of Sun Tzu’s Art of War using the lenses of strategists John Boyd and Simon Wardley (swardley). All parts. Other reading formats.

Sun Tzu

Landscape can be accessible, irreversible, deadlocked, enclosed, steep or distant.

地 (Dì) Land. Calligraphy © Hisayo Oki

An area is accessible if movement is easy for all.
To gain advantage in accessible areas, be first to find positions that maximize momentum and use climatic patterns to protect further moves.

An area is irreversible if entering is easy and returning is hard.
In irreversible areas,
if competition is unprepared, advance to engage and succeed;
if competition is prepared,
and movement fails,
the outcome is disadvantageous.

An area is deadlocked if movement is disadvantageous for all.
In deadlocked areas,
even if competition offers advantages,
withdraw, lure them out;
then engage for advantage.

In enclosed areas,
if first to secure it,
block the passes and wait for competition.
If competition is first to secure the area
and block the passes, avoid following;
with passes unblocked, follow.

In steep areas,
if first to secure it,
wait for competition at positions maximizing momentum.
If competition secure it first,
avoid following, withdraw to lure them out.

In distant areas,
when momentum is equal,
it is hard to provoke engagement;
engagement is disadvantageous at competition’s chosen position.

These are the approaches for the six different areas.
Consider them and act accordingly.

In strategy, the following are exceptions caused by lack of leadership
and are amplified in the difficult areas above:
turnover, reluctance, distress, collapse, chaos, setback.

Any of the following leads to failure if it persists:

Engaging much stronger competition invite turnover.

Trained people and unskilled leadership invite reluctance.

Skilled leadership and untrained people invite distress.

Leadership engaging without understanding feasibility or purpose
invite collapse.

giving unclear feedback,
arranging unfit training in doctrine,
communicating vague purpose
invite chaos.

unable to assess competition,
moving small against large,
fragile against resilient,
selecting people based on neither aptitude nor attitude
invite setback.

These are the six situations caused by lack of leadership.
Consider them and act accordingly.

Landscape is your ally in strategy:
skilled leadership use maps to assess competition
and determine difficulties, dangers and distance.

Know and use this
to be certain of success;
or else, be certain of failure.

If the situation indicate certain success,
although stakeholders disagree, proceed.
If the situation indicate certain failure,
although stakeholders disagree, withdraw.

Proceed without seeking fame;
withdraw without escaping blame;
aim to keep people safe and bring success to stakeholders.

Regard people as family members and they will follow everywhere.
Regard people as loved ones and they will stand by forever.
Only if leadership is both compassionate
and clearly communicate feedback, doctrine and purpose,
the organization can deploy strategy successfully.

Knowing the organization’s capabilities,
yet unaware of competition’s resilience,
is only halfway to success.

Knowing competition’s fragility,
yet unaware of the organization’s capabilities,
is only halfway to success.

Knowing competition’s fragility,
knowing the organization’s capabilities,
yet unaware of the landscape,
is only halfway to success.

So, skilled leadership move without mistakes, act without limits.

And therefore, knowing competition and knowing yourself,
success is possible;
knowing landscape and climate,
success is complete.


From A Discourse on Winning and Losing.

American colonists, Spanish and Russian guerrillas exploited variety and rapidity associated with environmental background (terrain, weather, darkness, etc.) and mobility/fluidity of small bands with harmony of common cause against tyranny/injustice as basis to harass, confuse, and contribute toward the defeat of the British and French under Napoleon.

Terrain does not fight wars. Machines do not fight wars. People fight wars. People do it and they use their minds. So you better understand the people, because if you don’t understand them, you ain’t gonna make it, period. Now it doesn’t mean you don’t pay attention to terrain, you don’t pay attention to machines, but persons, the human being, and the people are what counts. […] terrain is just the means through which you operate. The machines are just tools that you use.


From Wardley Maps.

Maps of Mapping
In the figure below, I’ve drawn an extended map from my purpose and my needs through to my user and their needs.

Map of mapping including users with different needs. Illustration: Simon Wardley (swardley, CC BY-SA 4.0)

From the map above:

Point 1 — we have my needs i.e. my purpose, my scope and my moral imperative. This is my why of purpose expressed as a chain of needs e.g. be the world’s best tea shop or teach everyone to map. Naturally, I’d hope that my purpose would lead to others doing something and hence there would be users. In 2007, my scope was relatively novel as few seemed to be talking about mapping. However, my imperative wasn’t quite so unique. There were many rallying against the imposed consultancy industry.

Point 2 — whilst I hadn’t expressed this before, I had an unwritten need to survive, to make revenue and a profit. This is a very common and well understood need. In my case, I hoped that I could achieve this by meeting my users’ needs of either teaching them how to map or helping them create advantage over others.

Point 3 — my users had needs themselves. If my needs (i.e. purpose) didn’t fit in some way with the needs of my users, then this mismatch was likely to cause problems. For example, if my highest purpose was to make profit rather than explain topographical intelligence, then I would be focusing on extracting money from my users (this is not one of their core needs) rather than providing a means of learning mapping and creating advantage (which is a core user need). You should always strive to generate revenue and profit as a direct consequence of meeting users’ needs and providing value to them.

There are few other subtler things worth noting about the map above. First, my purpose is part of a chain of needs and as such it is influenced by the underlying components as they evolve. Over time, if mapping and the related activities become more industrialized then a scope of “demonstrate the concepts of evolution and mapping” ceases to be relevant. Even my moral imperative might disappear if the world becomes one where everyone maps, learns about their environment and has rebelled against management consultants with their 2x2s. If you think back to the strategy cycle, this is simply a reflection of the issue that as you act, as your landscape changes then your purpose, scope, moral imperative and even how you survive have to adapt. Nothing is permanent.

The second thing to note is that everything is evolving. At some point in the future, I will need to adapt my scope not only because the underlying components have evolved but also that my scope has become industrialized. There would be a point that you will be able to read endless free guides on how to map and even wikipedia articles. If at that point might scope isn’t something else designed to meet users’ needs and provide value to them then I’ll be attempting to survive against free.

The final issue is the balancing act between different user needs. I thought I had learned that lesson in my past doomed attempt to build a platform future by ignoring one set of very powerful users (the board) but I repeated the same mistake in my strategy consultancy interview. I was trying to engage in a discussion on the environment whereas they needed a financial and HR analysis of impacts caused by a disposal. Whether it was the right or wrong decision wasn’t something they cared about and I wasn’t thinking about their needs. Any play I created may have been right but without support of these users then it didn’t matter.

Mapping is itself a means of exploring and learning about new forms of context specific gameplay i.e. there should be a constant pipeline of new forms of gameplay as long as we are willing to learn.

I’ve drawn this map up in the figure below. Whilst teaching mapping will ultimately industrialize (point 1) there is also a constant pipeline of gameplay (point 2) with new forms of gameplay emerging. I could create a business, with a strong purpose and though it would have to adapt as components changed, there would be other opportunities for me to exploit. Even if I open sourced the mapping method to encourage it to spread (which I did by making it all Creative Commons) then I knew that I could create a future as an “arms dealer” of gameplay.

Map of mapping including a pipeline of new forms of gameplay. Illustration: Simon Wardley (swardley,CC BY-SA 4.0)

Your map is always part of a wider chain of needs, it is no more than a window on an industry. A perfect map covering an entire industry and all its components is probably as unusable (Valéry’s paradox) as a perfect map of France (i.e. 1 to 1 scale). You have to accept some compromise.

You can draw many organizations onto a single map. The value chain is only a guide and higher up the value chain simply means more visible to that user. You can always draw chains of users e.g. the user needs for a gun company breakdown into the user needs for a bolt company.

Maps are a communication tool. Don’t be afraid to modify or clarify the terms on the axis if it helps in the discussion. Key is to keep within the bounds of what is a map, particularly position (e.g. value chain) and movement (e.g. evolution)

The map of mapping figure above contains components which are also the axes of the map i.e. the idea of evolution is itself evolving along the evolution scale. Mapping can be applied to itself. It also means that these current maps are little more than Babylonian Clay Tablets. Someone will make a better map.

There are many different things which we call innovation — this includes genesis of an act, feature differentiation of a product and a shifting business model from product to utility. They are very different despite our use of a single term to describe them.

Doctrine: Exploit the Landscape
Use the landscape to your advantage, there are often powerful force multipliers. You might decide not to take advantage of a competitor or a change in the market but that should be a conscious choice.

Positional Gameplays
General forms of playing with the future market

  • Land grab: Identifying and position a company to capture a future market space.
  • First mover: Exploiting first mover advantage especially with industrialization to component services.
  • Fast follower: Exploiting fast follower advantage into uncharted spaces.
  • Weak Signal: Use of common economic patterns to identify where and when to attack.

The Art of Strategy: All Parts

Contents: A very short summary of each part
Introduction: What is strategy and why do you need it?

  1. Assessments: How to assess, prepare and shape
  2. Challenges: How to use and reduce inertia, entropy and friction
  3. Success: How to succeed together with stakeholders
  4. Setup: How to create resilience
  5. Momentum: How to use creativity, focus and timing
  6. Shaping: How to shape and avoid being shaped
  7. Engagement: How to engage using surprise
  8. Adaptations: How to adapt to shifting situations
  9. Movements: How to move to optimize momentum
  10. Landscape: How to approach difficult areas
  11. Situations: How to handle difficult situations
  12. Disruption: How to disrupt and avoid being disrupted
  13. Intelligence: How to use intelligence to create foreknowledge

Annex: Wardley Mapping Examples
Glossary: Explanation of key terms and symbols
Acknowledgements: Standing on the shoulders of giants
Sources: Where to learn more
Other reading formats: Hardcover, paperback and PDF

This is provided as Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International by the author, Erik Schön.

Wardley Mapping is provided courtesy of Simon Wardley (swardley) and licensed as Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.



Erik Schön

From hacker, software researcher and system engineer to leader, executive and strategizer. Writer: #ArtOfLeadership #ArtOfStrategy