Strategy Lessons: The Ground Book

Musashi

A Book of Five Rings, written by Miyamoto Musashi in 1645, is one of the world’s classic sources of strategy. The book’s influence extends beyond military schools to the entire Japanese business culture, and has made its way into Western culture, too. It is one of the texts that comprises the foundation of Zoetica’s strategy services. This blog series looks at each of Musashi’s five chapters, and discusses how some of the phrases apply to the modern communications market.

The Ground Book opens the Five Rings with the basics of becoming a successful strategist. Here are five points that illustrate some dynamics in today’s communications marketplace.

1) Conquer Your Fear of Failure

“Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.” Musashi

Soldiers understand that death may await them on the battlefield, yet they perform under this duress. A communicator needs to understand that some efforts fail, and in the worst cases, enrage stakeholders. These are not desired outcomes, obviously, but the fear of communicating and negative outcomes has actually crippled some organizations and communicators. There’s no better example than the paralysis facing U.S. Government agencies as they attempt to embrace their public stakeholders on and offline.

This fear must be overcome. It is impossible to envision success if the first thought that comes to mind always involves avoiding failure. Success comes with understanding that failure is a possible outcome, and that you and your organization will learn from the experience, as unfortunate as it may be. Knowing this, the communicator should focus on what will create the best opportunities for success.

As a communicator, preparation through research, consistent practice in creating meaningful interactions between stakeholders and organization, and testing via advisory boards and focus groups comprised of stakeholders are the hallmarks of strong program design. By excelling at the practice of communications, one minimizes the chances for failure. Further, crisis communications remains the only way to handle rough spots, and this too is the hallmark of a strategic communicator. One must know how to interact with dissatisfied stakeholders.

2) Know More Than One Tactic

Bali Dancers / Balinese Dance - Yellow Moths
Yellow Moths by Dominic

“Recently there have been people getting on in the world as strategists, but they are usually just sword-fencers… In olden times strategy was listed among the Ten Abilities and Seven Arts as a beneficial practice. It was certainly an art but as beneficial practice it was not limited to sword fencing. The true value of sword-fencing cannot be seen within the confines of sword-fencing technique.” Musashi

Particularly apropos for today’s social media expert, this phrase can be applied to any discipline. Most media relations aces do not comprehend marketing. Direct marketers do not understand crowdsourcing. Advertisers rarely understand the long term relationship work that business developers and fundraising pros participate in. Like the sword fencers, specialists are just specialists.

To be a true strategist, a chief marketing officer, a leader of a communications department, one must have first hand knowledge of as many communications and marketing disciplines as possible. The insights drawn from one discipline lead to integration as well as the hybrid deployment of individual tactics. This creates the ability to wage campaigns using a wide a variety of best practices.

For example, consider the use of calls to action on right hand columns of blogs and social dashboards. This simple integration of advertising principles into social media creates opportunities for return on investment and clear measurement. Copyblogger is an extremely well written, engaging blog. It also masters the use of calls to action in its right hand column.

3) Envision the Entire Effort Act by Act

“There is timing in everything… From the outset you must know the applicable timing and the inapplicable timing, and from among the large and small things and the fast and slow timings find the relevant timing, first seeing the distance timing and the background timing. This is the main thing in strategy.” Musashi

Many strategic plans end at the selection of tactics. This is not enough. You must envision the entire program, and plan it out in an efficient manner and time the delivery of your efforts appropriately. Whether it’s a methodical daily commitment via an editorial calendar to communicate with a community, or a sudden burst of activity to market a new product/launch an advocacy campaign, actions must be planned. And they need to be planned with metrics and end goals in mind.

Without a plan to get somewhere, you only have tactics. To quote another Asian strategist, Sun Tzu aptly said, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

When you envision the entire effort, one can sequence events accordingly. Timing is an essential part of a strategic plan, and Musashi goes into great lengths to discuss timing in the Ground Book, and throughout the entire Book of Five Rings.

Consider that the well discussed Old Spice campaign featuring Isaiah Mustafa moved from targeted ads in movie theaters, to national TV ads, to online influencer outreach, to culminate with online social media responses on Twitter and YouTube. This sequencing was intentional and orchestrated as part of Old Spice’s strategy.

4) Know Your Community Intimately

Seesmic desktop4

“The Way of strategy is the Way of nature. When you appreciate the power of nature, knowing the rhythm of any situation, you will be able to hit the enemy naturally and strike naturally.” Musashi

In tandem with measurement, scenario planning helps the strategist foresee outcomes. Communities and entire markets do not always react the way we anticipate, but when we are in touch with our stakeholder and have considered different scenarios, the pulse is not hard to read. We understand the order of things and evolve as necessary.

Understanding how things may or may not go empowers the strategist to adjust to situations as they arise. When disagreement and discord occur, strong community management often allows an organization to anticipate issues in advance, and address them. Further, measurement as a management tool allows the strategist to play to a program’s strengths while minimizing its weaknesses midstream.

In social media circles most people know Seesmic for its social network dashboards. It started as a video social network, but over time Loic Le Meur and the company’s executive team adjusted their strategy to meet the market. It acquired Twhirl, a desktop client to integrate video into Twitter. Demand for the dashboard client was so strong the company simply focused on this aspect of its business, leaving the video social network behind.

5) Don’t Get Stuck on a Tool

“You should not have a favorite weapon. To become over-familiar with one weapon is as much a fault as not knowing it sufficiently well… It is bad for commanders and troopers to have likes and dislikes.” Musashi.

To become overly reliant on any one tool limits your ability to successfully address different stakeholders and situations, and remain successful over time. Let’s be frank, tactics and tools wax and wane as media technologies evolve. Otherwise we’d have Friendster and MySpace buttons atop this post. Kevin Dugan calls this T&F Tunnel Vision, short for over-reliance on Twitter and Facebook.

In any discipline over-reliance on a tactic can significantly limit opportunities for success. Competitors can exploit weaknesses. While one company only engages in media relations, its competitors are actively working trade shows, conferences, industry analysts, online communications, and more.

Zappos’s most well know marketing success is its Twitter efforts. But its direct customer marketing and extended social communications ensures the company’s grassroots efforts will live beyond Twitter.

These are just a several of the lessons gleaned from Musashi’s The Ground Book. The next part in the series is The Water Book.

16 Replies to “Strategy Lessons: The Ground Book”

  1. And ironically enough, Musashi was not taught any of this by mentors and gurus. He figured all this out by himself, strike by strike, footfall by footfall. He pioneered the double-sword fighting technique. He sought out every master in Japan in order to test and prove his theories (and his courage, for that matter). Cool series, Geoff. Great idea.

    1. He was undefeated, a miracle for the scores of battles he engaged in. And he was an artist, too. So amazing. Such an inspiration.

      It was time to return to the fundamentals and escape the popular myths about strategy. We need to reinject the basics back into the marketplace.

      1. Thoroughly enjoyed the post and motivated me to dust off this book from my “to be read” shelf. The fact that he was undefeated, though, may be an artifact of his mastery of timing… as in Sun Tzu – “If you know yourself and you know your opponents, you will not be defeated in 100 battles”.

  2. Geoff – I love this posting, the significant goal of a communications strategist is to have stakeholders think or act differently in support of the goal your strategy is designed to meet. Your review of A Book of Five Rings pulls the elements of strategic thinking together into a consise posting.

    Well Done!

  3. Love this Geoff. I know the next book I have to pick up now. A really fantastic and simple insight into strategy.

    All five seem to have a unison between them. Take out one and there is a definitely gap which exists.

    Now you shared with us the Five..which is your favorite?

    1. By far the act by act section. Timing is so critical in strategy and tactical execution that really it cannot be discussed enough. Being able to perceive when to act, and when not to is an uncanny balance of experience, gut instinct, and planning. As you will see (hopefully if you come back), timing plays essential roles in the other four books or “rings” of Musashi’s classic.

      Thank you for your kind words!

  4. Geoff, this is great. The strategic insight you provide is invaluable, and will help us real ways! I look forward to reading more of the Five Rings series!

  5. This is fantastic Geoff!! I remember reading the book while I was doing martial arts in college. Now I need to re-read it and print this out.

  6. I found The Ground Book list on the back of my son’s bedroom door & wondered what it was. (converting it to my own purposes now that he moved out, leaving rules on door) I found your blog & it wonderfully addresses some of my marketing needs & understandings.  PS I Ordered the Book of Five Rings. http://www.thewishfactory.com   Jana

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