Stratagem 29:Clamor in the East; Attack to the West
“When the enemy command is in confusion, it will be unprepared for contingencies. The situation is like flood waters rising higher and higher; likely to burst the dam at any moment. When the enemy loses internal control, take the chance and destroy him.”
—From The Thirty-Six Stratagems
In the mid-1990s, John (who asked that his name and other key elements of this case be changed to avoid recognition) invested his savings and purchased a heating-fuel company. Soon thereafter he realized that the company faced a formidable competitive challenge. It had enjoyed a stable existence as the leading heatingfuel distributor in its small hometown (we will call this town Westville). Revenues were stable and sufficient to generate an attractive profit for its owners.
But history had moved on, and John’s stable company was facing a new competitive threat that was eroding the company’s revenue for the first time in years. Westville’s neighbor was a far larger town called Middleville. The leading heating fuel-distributor in Middleville had squeezed out its local competition and was now seeking growth by crossing its former boundaries to try to win market share in Westville.
Had John been aware of this new competitive threat, he would have paid far less for his new company. But the transaction was complete. John needed to save his investment. John’s obvious choices were (1) to defend by mounting a strong defense by bolstering his sales effort in Westville or (2) to launch a counterattack on his competitor’s home turf of Middleville. But John chose neither option. Instead he focused his attention on Eastville, Middleville’s other neighbor.
John had heard that a heating-fuel storage facility in Eastville was available for rent. Though he had barely enough cash to keep his business afloat in Westville and certainly insufficient capital to expand into a new, noncontiguous territory like Eastville, John leased this Eastville storage facility. He gambled that by leasing a facility he could not afford to use, he would save his company.
Heating-fuel distributors form a close-knit community, so it took little time for John’s competitor to learn who had leased the Eastville storage facility. The implication of this news was obvious: John’s company, the small heating fuel distributor from Westville, was preparing to skip over Middleville and begin selling fuel in Eastville.
John’s competitor had to respond. He needed to keep John out of Eastville for two reasons: he had to protect his business in Eastville where he had already started to expand, and he feared being hemmed in by John on two fronts. So to repel John’s attack, this competitor strengthened his position in Eastville by redeploying his sales force across town.
But John’s attack never came. His Eastville warehouse lay bare while John focused instead on his hometown, Westville. In the vacuum left by his competitor’s redeployed sales force, John was able to grow. He recaptured his original market share and more. By the end of five years, John had nearly doubled his revenue and more than doubled its profitability. He later sold the company for far more than its original value.
By feigning a move into Eastville, John duped his competition into exposing itself to an attack in Westville. In this way he led a once-stable but then struggling company into a growth trajectory. John is not alone misdirecting the competition with this stratagem. Apple CEO Steve Jobs is known to throw off the market before a product launch by publicly scoffing at what he is secretly planning. Just one year before Apple launched an iPod that played video content, Steve Jobs told the press:
They love listening to music as a background activity . . . when they’re exercising, when they are commuting and when they are just hanging out, and music is a wonderful thing because: A, it’s music; and B, because it can be listened to as a background activity. And a lot of these other things that people are talking about building in such as video and things like that are foreground activities. You can’t drive a car when you’re watching a movie. You know?It’s really hard doing that.78
“Attack him where he is unprepared. Appear where not expect.”
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War79
Crossing a River, Luring a Leader, Ending a Siege
Two rival warlords, Yuan Shao and the great strategist Cao Cao, had been at war for many years. In AD 200, they prepared for what would be their decisive battle. Yuan Shao enjoyed two advantages in this battle. He occupied a superior position, and his forces outnumbered Cao Cao’s.
Emboldened by his strength, Yuan Shao decided to cut off Cao Cao’s supply lines, support, and escape route by attacking a small city called Baima at the rear of Cao Cao’s forces (see Stratagem Ten, Remove the firewood from under the pot). He ordered enough soldiers to move against Baima so that Cao Cao’s forces would be overwhelmed.
When Cao Cao heard of Yuan Shao’s troop movement, he quickly assembled his advisors. They pondered his options but found few to choose from. If they moved to defend Baima, they would be far outnumbered and probably lose that battle. If they did not defend Baima, they would become crippled without supplies and support. They would have no chance against Yuan Shao.
Then one advisor suggested that Cao Cao pretend to attack Yuan Shao’s old stronghold, Ye. Cao Cao understood how this move would play out and agreed.
Cao Cao led troops across the river toward Ye. When Yuan Shao heard of this incursion, he ordered half of his forces to turn back from their march toward Baima to return and defend against the imminent attack of Ye. After night set in, however, Cao Cao ordered his troops to change direction. They marched all night toward Baima.
The next morning, Yuan Shao arrived at Ye confused. He was prepared for battle but found no enemy. No one at Ye even knew an attack was coming.
That same morning, Cao Cao arrived at Baima with the troops he had redirected. His army now outnumbered the half that Yuan Shao had left to besiege Baima. He defeated Yuan Shao’s forces, cut off their general’s head, and saved the city.