Stratagem 13:The Stratagem of the Beautiful Woman.
“When faced with a formidable enemy, try to subdue their leader. When dealing with an able and resourceful commander, exploit his indulgence of sensual pleasures in order to weaken his fighting spirit. When the commander becomes inept, his soldiers will be demoralized, and their combat power will be greatly weakened. This stratagem takes advantage of the enemy’s weakness for the sake of self-protection.”
—From The Thirty-Six Stratagems
To win adoption of a technology, service, or other innovation typically requires enrolling critical gatekeepers. If you can identify these players and target their unique weaknesses or needs, you can unlock their gates with ease.
Successful corporate innovators often implement this strategy through the placement of carefully designed strategic investments. In the late 1990s, for example, QUALCOMM was fighting heatedly
for the world to adopt its wireless technology, Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA). This required that AT&T Wireless and other mobile phone operators agree to build their systems using CDMA. If an operator chose CDMA, then phone makers such as Motorola would begin building CDMA handsets setting off a virtuous cycle of growth. But QUALCOMM’s advances went unnoticed because most operators around the world were leaning toward an alternative technology called Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA).
Mobile phone players in United States and other developed countries were fairly entrenched in their technology commitments. Convincing them to switch to CDMA was akin to entering a
crowded battlefield. In comparison, the battlefield in developingcountries, where a mobile phone was a relative novelty, seemed unguarded. QUALCOMM saw a way to influence developing countries to adopt CDMA.
Exponential growth of mobile phone usage in developing countries demanded large infrastructure investments. To remain competitive, phone operators would need capital to build new towers
and expand their networks. QUALCOMM channeled its highflying stock and robust cash flow to begin investing in mobile phone operators in select developing markets.
In 1997 and 1998, the company invested heavily in foreign operators. It purchased a 50 percent interest in Chilesat PCS for $42 million. The following year, it committed $110 million to Pegaso Telecommunications in Mexico and OxPhone Pty, Ltd. in Australia, along with Metrosvyaz Ltd. and Orrengrove Investments Ltd. in Russia. QUALCOMM was not interested in entering the phone-operator business. Indeed it later spun off all of its mobile phone–operator investments (see Let the plum tree whither in place of the peach). Rather, the company made these investments to build influence and push phone operators to choose CDMA over other options. By identifying and playing to a critical need, QUALCOMM altered the calculations of mobile phone operators in developing countries, giving them a compelling reason, beyond purely technical considerations, to prefer QUALCOMM’s proprietary technology. CDMA became a preferred technology platform in much of the developing world not necessarily because it was a better choice but because QUALCOMM designed an influencing strategy to stack the cards in its favor.
A Woman Topples an Empire
Around 200 BC, a ruthless warlord, Dong Zhou, indirectly controlled the Han Empire through a puppet emperor. He strengthened his power by adopting a powerful warrior, Lu Bu, as his son,
thereby ensuring Lu Bu’s and the army’s loyalty. With this solid power base, Dong Zhou was able to rule with a heavy hand and with little fear of attack. He developed a reputation for regularly
beheading those who betrayed, contradicted, or opposed him.
The governor of one of the empire’s provinces feared it was only a matter of time before he, too, was condemned, so he devised a plan to remove Dong Zhou from power. He applied The stratagem
of the beautiful woman.
The governor first found a stunning young woman who was willing to help him execute his plan. He then invited Lu Bu to his house for dinner and had the young woman serve Lu Bu wine. The young woman quickly intrigued Lu Bu. His curiosity grew as he drank, and eventually he asked the governor about the young woman. The governor said she was his niece and offered her to Lu Bu as his wife. Lu Bu eagerly accepted and made arrangements for a wedding. The governor’s first stone was in place.
Next, the governor invited Dong Zhou over for dinner. And again, in a similar fashion, the governor conspicuously displayed the young woman so that Dong Zhou became enamored and inquired after her. The governor told the warlord she was his maid and offered her to the warlord as his concubine. The warlord enthusiastically accepted and arranged for his people to pick her up the
next day. The governor’s second stone was in place.
Through the woman, the governor gained influence over the two most powerful people in the empire. The governor used this influence to play Dong Zhou and Lu Bu against each other. Each
thought the other was trying to steal the woman against her will. The woman lied to each to reinforce this belief, asking the warlord to protect her from the warrior and vice versa.
The rivalry between the warlord and his chief warrior heated up. Neither was willing to give in. Lu Bu eventually killed Dong Zhou and so freed the governor and the Han Empire from Dong Zhou’s oppressive rule.