Sun Tzu and the Survival of the DevOps Fittest

NOTE: The original version of this blog, “Sun Tzu – Survival of the Service Management Fittest,” appeared in the The Journal of the IT Service Management Forum.

In 2013, I wrote a blog about survival of the service management fittest. I was re-reading it recently and couldn’t help thinking how much the advice was pertinent to the challenges facing organizations in a Service Management, DevOps and Agile environment.  


In making DevOps and providing good service more accessible to the masses, I often try to draw parallels from elsewhere. Modern life provides many examples but every so often you can reach back into the annals of history and find inspiration there. One such example is based around the often-quoted book “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, a fifth century B.C. Chinese general. On the basis that one should never let the age of the advice cloud our judgement, I delved into ancient texts.    

I first came across “The Art of War” when both Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen referred to its advice in Oliver Stone’s 1987 Hollywood blockbuster “Wall Street.” Watching a rerun some years later, I decided to download the e-book onto my iPod (that dates it!) and see what all the fuss was about. After listening a second time I began to see parallels with the “battles” that many organizations fight with other service providers, customers and even themselves (Dev and Ops).  

Sun Tzu talks about the “Art of War” being the path to safety or ruin, while good DevOps or service management certainly matches up there. This first part of the Chinese general’s advice concerns five constants—the mastery and understanding of them being key to victory. Know them and not will fail, preaches the master tactician and strategist. Here are the five constants and their DevOps/service equivalents: 

1. The moral law – Roughly translated this is Sun Tzu saying “know the organization, its values and its objectives.”  No organization can ever hope to succeed without the dual focus provided by a simple strategic target and the understanding of its own and customer organization’s cultures.

2. Heaven – Understanding times, seasons, day and night were high on Sun Tzu’s list of imperatives for war.  Providing quality applications and services is a thousand times more difficult if we are unrealistic about timescales, fail to take account of mission-critical periods or just plain ignorant when resource planning and setting customer expectations. If you’re adopting DevOps practices and just getting to grips with toolchains and value streams, you cannot ever hope to achieve the velocities of a Google or Netflix overnight. Don’t set that expectation.

3. Earth – Distance and terrain are next … translated the dangers and risks provided by the ground you intend to wage war on. Sun Tzu was obviously an exponent of the baseline. Paraphrased, he talks about studying and learning from a baseline before going into battle. Weighing up the feasibility of the battle based on the ground—Sun Tzu had mountains, rivers, valleys—in DevOps we have products, tools, people, skills, value streams and cost.

4. Commander – Leadership had to come into the equation. Sun Tzu chooses to personify this in the Commander of his army retaining the loyalty of their troops. A well-trained Commander is experienced in going to battle, familiar with the five constants and able to get the best out of the resources available. If you’re a DevOps Leader or Service Manager and have never been in that battle, what on earth have you been doing?   

5. Method – Sun Tzu believes in balancing the marshalling of the army, the tactics and the finances in a drive to produce constancy. Is using DevOps, Lean and Service Management practices to achieve a cadence and consistent level of service that business customers can plan around really any different?           

With our five constants “in the bag” we now move onto another facet of Sun Tzu’s advice. Sun Tzu talks about seven considerations that will define who will win a battle. We all work under constant scrutiny of our value benchmarked against other organizations. It seems inconceivable that we won’t come up against “a battle” against them at some point, be it for business or ultimately our jobs. “Pick your battles” was Sun Tzu’s guidance. When he did go into battle he seemed to have the bases covered again.     

Here are the seven considerations for the service provider organization going into battle:  

1. Are you in line with the ‘moral law’?  

Sun Tzu was trying to tell us the just will win. The service organization best positioned to align to the culture and objectives of its customer will be successful. Yes, it really is that simple. Shift-left in either the Agile or service management sense of the word seems to be the answer.  

2. Who has the best leader?  

People follow leaders because they want to. People follow managers because they have to. They’ll go the extra mile for a leader they trust and who trusts them.  Effective servant leadership and influence of both senior management and champions is a key success factor in many aspects of the culture shift involved in DevOps.    

3. Who is in the best place with regards to heaven and earth?  

The physical high ground, or perhaps a river to protect a flank, or maybe even the timing of an attack, were the types of advantage Sun Tzu said were crucial. It is never the absolute guarantee of victory but the organization with the best toolsets, information, practices and products that tend to enter any battle with a significant advantage.  

4. Where is discipline best enforced?  

Sun Tzu certainly didn’t believe in circumventing process. The army must conform to the general’s orders. The general can’t be everywhere so the understanding of the plan of battle with his commanders and allowing them the freedom to operate within it was crucial. Was Sun Tzu one of the earliest exponents of the Theory of Constraints? Good governance will define which is the better organization. The organization that can still operate even when its commanders are isolated and out of communication will be victorious. Self-organizing teams experiment within boundaries.  

5. Which army is stronger?  

In Sun Tzu’s battles, the better fed, resourced and supplied army will stand the ultimate chance of winning. The right resources, in the right place, at the right time can make you look, feel and actually be stronger. Capacity management and supplier management were as vital to Sun Tzu’s efforts as they are yours. No matter how good your people are the wrong tools and incentives can make them seem inept.  

6. Who is best trained? 

Sun Tzu knew his army must be well-trained. All the hardware, software and processes in the world will only ever be as good as the people using them. An impressive array of “weapons” in the wrong, untrained hands can actually do even greater harm than good simply because the customer may expect so much more. The learning culture in a DevOps environment is critical.      

7. Where is constancy best displayed in reward and punishment?  

Sun Tzu believes that “Soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline.” If a DevOps leader or service manager is a dictator and does not strive to win the respect of the team, they will not follow; or worse, still they may only pretend to follow. Conversely, if the leader is adored by his people but refuses to discipline them, the result is equally unproductive. The key is to find a balance between the two.


Sun Tzu’s principles of war readily find so many modern parallels if applied to providing service. I’ll leave the last word with Gordon Gekko from the film “Wall Street.” He knew the power of information, preparation, strategy and design before ever getting close to making a trade or going into battle for a company. I’m not suggesting we should break the law to win business but look at Gekko’s source of wisdom. “I don’t throw darts at a board. I bet on sure things. Read Sun Tzu , “The Art of War.” Every battle is won before it is ever fought.” Who’d have ever believed that using the checklist and tactics of a fifth-century B.C. Chinese general would lead to success in DevOps and service management? It’s my contention that Sun Tzu would have made a hell of a DevOps leader and a fearsome opponent in a competitor organization.     


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