Situation Appraisal

To win a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the hallmark of skill. The acme of skill is to subdue the enemy without even fighting.

—The Art of War

One who excels in warfare does not await the deployment of forces.

One who excels at eliminating the misfortunes of people manages them before they appear.

Conquering the enemy means being victorious over the formless.
The superior fighter does not engage in battle.
Thus one who fights and attains victory in front of naked blades is not a good general.
One who makes preparations after the battle is not a superior Sage!

—The Six Secret Teachings

You start with an idea—a notion—about

something you want to do or something you want to get or someone you want to become.

Before you take action or even make an action plan, you should first take a moment and see if it’s worth it.

To borrow a business term, you need to do a “feasibility study.”

You need to gather as much quality information as you can roughly estimate the feasibility of the project.

Or in terms of conflict, this is an initial “sizing up” of the opponent in the environment.

For instance, the annoying loudmouth at the bar often has a crew to back him up, so you might want to think twice before telling him that he is an annoying loudmouth.

You must answer “Yes” to 3 questions (or maybe 2 out of 3) to move past this initial stage when any action.

1. Are there definite advantages to be gained?

2. Is my defense solid?

3. Is there is a high probability of victory?

1.          There are definite advantages to be gained.

Do not move unless there are definite advantages to be gained; do not use troops unless you can succeed; do not fight unless you are in danger.

—The Art of War

Don’t allow yourself to get pulled into a conflict that you are not suited, or ready, for due to emotional reasons.

One of the most difficult things in life is to control your emotions.

To achieve this control, we must be ever vigilant.

A ruler must not start a war out of anger; A general must not fight a battle out of resentment.
Engage only when it is in the interest of the State; Cease when it is to its detriment.

—The Art of War

2.          Your defense is solid

In ancient times, those adept at warfare first made themselves unbeatable and waited for opportunities to defeat the enemy.

—The Art of War

You can think of “defense” as “worst case scenario” thinking. If I pursue this course of action, what is the worst thing that can happen?

Sometimes it’s the best course of action to work “bottom-up.”

You figure out what the worst thing is that can happen and then you continually work to make that worst case scenario slightly better.

You keep working at improving your “base rate” until there is a relatively low margin for “failure.”

3.          There is a high probability of victory

There are rarely things in life that are one hundred percent certain, but strategy and strategic advantage can dramatically increase the odds of a certain outcome.

Those that the ancients referred to as excelling in warfare conquered those who were easy to conquer.
Thus the victories of those that excelled in warfare were not marked by fame for wisdom or courageous achievement.
Thus their victories were free from error.
One who is free from error directs his measures toward certain victory, conquering those who are already defeated.

—The Art of War

If you choose a course of action where the odds are highly stacked in your favor, your victory will be “free from error”.

So, how do you go about determining the feasibility of a proposed course of action?

There is one “quick and dirty” method that will pretty much get to the heart of the matter right away.

He who has a thorough knowledge of himself and the enemy is bound to win in all battles.
He who knows himself but not the enemy has only a fifty percent chance of winning.
He who does not know himself or the enemy is bound to perish in all battles.

—The Art of War

You should also factor in external variables as much as possible.

Know your enemy, know yourself, and your victory will not be threatened.
Know the terrain, know the weather, and your victory will be complete.

—The Art of War


You can do a quick appraisal of the situation by examining your strengths and weaknesses vis-àvis the competition in that particular context.

After you’ve done that, you can do a more detailed analysis.

A thorough analysis involves the examination of 8 key factors.

1. Moral influence

2. Generalship / Command

3. Climate

4. Terrain

5. Doctrine/ Law

6. Troop Strength

7. Training of Troops

8. Discipline (System of Punishment and


Most of these factors involve Social and Structural aspects, so I will only touch on them briefly here.

In this module, we will look at the factors of Generalship / Command in greater detail.

1.          Moral Influence

Moral influence is symbolic of the external factor of the “ruler” in the environment.

For example, in business the political leadership of the country affects the entire context for business in that country.

2.          Generalship / Command

There are 5 important attributes of the general.

1. Wisdom

2. Sincerity

3. Benevolence

4. Courage

5. Strictness

The Sage takes his signs from the movements of Heaven and Earth.

He accords with the way of yin and yang, and follows their seasonal activity.

He follows the cycles of fullness and emptiness of Heaven and Earth, taking them as his constant.
All things have life and death and in accord with the form of Heaven and Earth.

–The Six Secret Teachings

Wisdom is the ability to recognize changing circumstances and act accordingly.

Sincerity means the ability to gain trust from your working group.

Benevolence means the ability to empathize and sympathize with others—be able to see and feel the world from other people’s perspectives.

Courage suggests the ability to be decisive and capitalize on opportunities without hesitation.

Strictness is the ability to have self-discipline and instill discipline in others.

The Six Secret Teachings refer to a very similar list of positive traits.

If he is courageous he cannot be overwhelmed.
If he is wise he cannot be forced into turmoil.
If he is benevolent he will love his men.
If he is trustworthy he will not be deceitful.
If he is loyal he won’t be of two minds.

In addition, Sima Fa has this to add:

The mind must embody benevolence and actions should incorporate righteousness.
Relying on the nature of things is wisdom; relying on the great is courage; relying on longstanding relations leads to good faith.
Yielding results in harmony.

Aside from these positive qualities that a general needs to foster, there are some common weaknesses which can afflict a general.

Below is a list of weaknesses and how to capitalize on them.

You would first want to use this knowledge to protect yourself. If necessary, you could use these points to leverage your enemy.

If reckless, he can be killed.
If cowardly, he can be captured.
If easily angered, he is easily provoked.
If sensitive to honor, he can easily be insulted.
If overly compassionate, he can easily be harassed.

—The Art of War

One who is courageous and treats death lightly can be destroyed by violence.
One who is hasty and impatient can be destroyed by persistence.
One who is greedy and loves profit can be bribed.
One who is benevolent but unable to inflict suffering can be worn down.
One who is wise but fearful can be distressed.
One who is trustworthy and likes to trust others can be deceived.
One who is scrupulous and incorruptible but doesn’t love men can be insulted.
One who is wise but indecisive can be suddenly attacked.
One who is resolute and self-reliant can be confounded by events.
One who is fearful and likes to entrust responsibility to others can be tricked.

–The Six Secret Teachings

3.          Climate

Climate is the varying weather conditions, seasons, temperatures, and cycles of day and night.

These climatic conditions refer to externals that are out of your control.

4.          Terrain

Terrain refers to fixed external factors. Terrain will determine the type of strategies that can be employed.

To give a military example, in a conflict in the Middle-East, the openness of the terrain dictates which types of military strategies can be used, the types of weaponry and the ways in which troops can be employed.

Terrain is not the same as Ground.

Battlegrounds are not necessarily fixed.

The general can decide on what type of battleground he wishes to engage the enemy.

The Ground or battlefield is a variable factor and more or less controllable.

5.          Doctrine or Law

This factor suggests the overall organization and structure of a group.

In military terms, this would mean the designation of ranks, allocation of responsibilities, management of supply routes and provisions of the army.

In a business context, this would be the different departments and the specific roles each of those departments play in the overall organization.

6.    Troop Strength

This refers to numerical aspects of the group and their equipment or resources.

In business, this can refer to relative strengths and weaknesses in terms of human resources, management, capital reserves, technology, markets and so on.

7.          Training

This refers to the training or education of the group.

While overall numbers can be an important factor, training can also be vital in determining outcomes.

For example, smaller, expertly trained fighting units, like the U.S. Navy SEALs can have as much impact as an entire army, if deployed in a strategic way.

And in business, many stock investors will do a thorough examination of a company’s top personnel before buying the stock.

The few people in leadership positions, and their level of training and expertise, impact the organization significantly.

8.          Discipline

While the general must exhibit self-discipline and lead by example, discipline here refers to the system of punishment and reward used to motivate and regulate members of the group.

The 8 factors: You and the Enemy

Just as a good general must appraise these factors before going to war, you must carefully weigh these variables in your assessment.

These factors are evaluated in relation to your competition.

You must choose if this course of action is appropriate for you.

You must know the enemy and know yourself.
When I was about to engage in battle, I first
evaluated the enemy’s mind by comparing it
with my mind to determine who was more controlled.
Only then could I know myself.

–Questions and Replies

A final word on situation appraisal, it is best to concentrate your forces at the point of highest leverage.

However, there are other tools in the strategy toolkit like adaptability and innovation.

If there is something you really want to do and you do a situational appraisal and it looks like you don’t have a good chance of succeeding— do it anyway.

Perhaps I am counteracting everything I’ve said up to this point, but there is more than one way to skin a dog.

At times you have to go against the odds.

As my friend Mr. Wang used to say, “You must try. You must do your best.”

Sometimes you must trust that you can adapt as the situation calls for it.

As Emerson said, “Do the thing and you will have the power.”

If you have a strong enough desire to something, then you will succeed despite circumstances.

If you don’t have that burning desire to put the concept into action and the initial appraisal doesn’t look too promising, then go back and revise the initial idea until it becomes more feasible.

Before the engagement, one who determines in the ancestral temple that he will be victorious has found that the majority of factors are in his favor.
Before the engagement one who determines in the ancestral temple that he will not be victorious has found few factors are in his favor.
If I observe it from this perspective, victory and defeat will be apparent.

—The Art of War

If there is a definite advantage to be gained, the worst case scenario is not that bad and you have a high probability for victory, then move on to the next step—

Formulation of Goals and Strategies.

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