By Kai Yang
The 36 strategies are a collection of some of the most subtle and counter-intuitive strategies developed in ancient China in the past three millenniums covering the fields of politics, diplomacy, espionage and business operations. There are some striking similarities among the 36 strategies and the inventive principles of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ). Both strive to derive solutions for difficult problems that maximize total benefits while minimizing costs and harmful side effects. In this paper, the 36 strategies are described in detail with TRIZ comparisons using the strategies developed in ancient China.15 The application of the 36 strategies and TRIZ in non-technical areas are also discussed with similarities and differences.
The 40 inventive principles and the contradiction matrix compiled by the founder of TRIZ, Genrich Altshuller, and his colleagues are some of the tools used in TRIZ.1,2 Theory of Inventive Problem Solving research started with the study of patents; therefore, most TRIZ principles and methods are based on knowledge accumulated in technological areas. Many researchers, however, have studied how to extend TRIZ to non-technical areas. Since the 1970s, there have been continuous efforts made by TRIZ researchers to extend TRIZ into non-technical areas.19 There are now 40 inventive business principles and 40 inventive principle analogies of TRIZ in the context of software and computing.5,7,9 The 40 inventive principles have also been adapted for service operation management, quality management and education.8,11,18
Several researchers have also tried to link and compare inventive TRIZ principles with other existing strategies and approaches in non technical areas, including comparing the 40 inventive principles with Medieval Latin phrases.12 There have been discussions about several of the ancient 36 strategies written in Chinese literature and a comparison of some of the analects of Confucius with TRIZ thinking.4,13 The purpose of the latter research was to try to discover whether there are common links among "fundamental and universal principles of human wisdom and creativity" from different schools of thoughts.12
There are similarities among the 36 strategies and author Sun Tzu's book The Art of War, which focuses on military organization, leadership and battle field tactics.3 The 36 strategies are more suitable in the field of politics, diplomacy, espionage and business operations.
The term, 36 strategies, was first mentioned in the Book of Southern Qi in its seventh biographical volume, Biography of Wang Jingze, which is a history of the Chinese dynasty, Southern Qi. It covers the period from 479 to 502 AD. The only existing known hard copy that describes the original 36 strategies was discovered in 1941; it is a brief book.14,17 Though this book was printed in 1941 (by an unknown author) it is believed that the original version of this book was written some time during the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368–1644) or Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).
Stefan H. Verstappan and H. von Senger are the authors who introduced the 36 strategies to the Western world.15,16 There are many sources for these 36 strategies, they include: I Ching Book of Change and Art of War; some of the sources of the 36 strategies date back to the Ming Dynasty.3,10
The main objective of the 36 strategies is described in the summary section of the The Thirty Six Strategies: "There are many issues in warfare, such as strengthening armed forces, choosing officers, planning the wars, etc., we can certainly follow some standard practices. But there will be infinite variations, surprises, uncertainties when war really happens, 36 strategies can be tried out to deal with all that whenever you are in advantageous or disadvantageous position."17
The description of the 36 strategies is based on the Biography of Wang Jingze.17 The original version of the book, however, discusses the 36 strategies mostly in the context of Chinese histories and classics. The author will describe these strategies in a more general fashion with modern day examples. For each strategy, if it is similar or somewhat related to certain inventive TRIZ principles, they will be listed.
The preface of the 36 strategies states: "Six times six equals thirty six, calculations produce tactics and tactics yield more calculations. Based on this correlative relationship, ploys and strategies are devised. Strategies can never be prescribed without adjustments; rigid application of theory will result in failure."17
The 36 strategies are divided into six sections/strategies:
In the first three sections, the decision makers have an advantageous position and in the second three sections, the decision makers have a disadvantageous position.
This strategy is based on a Chinese legend. Around 600 AD (after death), the Chinese emperor wanted to attack Korea, but he was not confident to bring all the troops through the sea, his top general decorated big ships like "fun ships" with wine and a party and the emperor sailed through the sea in calm.
In The Thirty Six Strategies it further explains that the strategy involves camouflage, ordinary camouflage schemes (such as moving troops in dark and shadows) that are easy to be detected. If an individual can act in open and hide his true intentions under the guise of common every day activities he will be much more effective.
The TRIZ principle color change is relevant because color can be used as a camouflage. The homogeneity principle is somewhat relevant because it states that it makes "objects by interacting with a given object of the same material." For the first strategy it is important to make things look ordinary and normal so they have some similar elements. The intermediary principle is somewhat relevant because it states that it can use an intermediate carrier article or merge one object temporarily with another (which can be easily removed). These methods can serve the need for the first strategy well under some circumstances.
In 354 BC, (before Christ) China was in a Warring States period; the Wei state launched a full force attack on the Zhao state. Zhao was asking its ally, the Qi state, for help. One renowned strategist of the Qi state, Sun Bin (Sun Tzu's descendent) proposed not to directly confront the strong Wei army, but launched another attack on the Wei's capital. This forced the Wei to withdraw to save its capital from sacking. This strategy used smaller forces and was much less costly.
The fourth point in The Thirty Six Strategies further explains that: "You cannot solve a puzzle by using fist, you cannot resolve a conflict by taking side and participating the fight."
In fighting floods, sometimes it is too difficult to reinforce dams instead selectively flood the water to less populated places.
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote: "An intelligent commander will avoid enemy when their spirit is at peak, but attack the enemy when their spirit is at low point and when they are tired. Keep yourself calm and orderly, well fed, well rested, to await chaotic, exhausted and confused enemy."
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu described: "Now, when your army is exhausted and your resources are spent, this is the time that new opponents enter the field to take advantage of your weakness. No matter how clever the leader is, once this situation has become about, the end is inevitable."
When the oil crises shook the world in the 1970s, Japanese car manufacturers took advantage of the situation, achieving massive sales with energy saving small cars.
Principle 10 is relevant because it states that "pre-arranging objects such that they can come into action from the most convenient place and without losing time for their delivery." It shares the same line of thinking as Strategy 5 on acting on the most advantageous situation and timing. Principle 11 is somewhat relevant because it states that "preparing emergency means beforehand to compensate for the relatively low reliability of an object," it shares the same thought with strategy five on "preparing emergency means."
In any battle the element of surprise can provide an overwhelming advantage. Even when face to face with an enemy the element of surprise can still be employed by attacking where an individual least expects it.
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote: "The spot where we intend to fight must not be made known, for then the enemy will have to prepare against a possible attack at different points and his force will be then spread out too thin."
The original strategy is to mix real things with illusions to confuse the enemy in war. It also means that "nothing" and "something" are not absolute. Just like Lao Tze said: "The world are born from something and something from nothing."
During the late Qin Dynasty, 206 BC, the Han force wanted to fool the Chu force. The Han force adopted the strategy to pretend to repair a broken walkway. The Han force, however, secretly sent the main force to take the important town of Chencang quickly and decisively.
Prior to the Battle of Normandy, the allies wanted to draw the axis attention away from Normandy. A fictitious First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG) was created for this purpose. Dummy tanks, trucks, planes and camps were made. They were placed in an area to lead Germany to believe that the actual large scale invasion would take place in Pas de Calais. The air defense in this area was at a minimum to allow Luftwaffe to photograph them easily. Allied naval bombardment was focused on Pas de Calais instead of Normandy. Dummy paratroopers were also used to create further uncertainty on the German side regarding the actual location of the invasion. This led the German defense forces into disorder and allowed the Normandy operation to be carried out with relative ease.
This strategy is consistent with TRIZ ideas of "optimal use of resource" and "use of other's resources and knowledge to our advantages."
There are circumstances where an individual must sacrifice short-term objectives in order to gain the long-term goal.
During the Warring States period in China (476 BC to 221 BC) a general named Mr. Tian in the Qi state often played horse racing games with other noble families. There were three classes of horses: upper, middle and lower, for the same owner. An upper class horse would run faster than the middle class horse. In one race, Mr. Tien's horses were inferior to his competitor in all classes. He consulted Sun Bin (Sun Tzu's descendent), Sun Bin told him: "Use your lower class horse to race with his upper class horse (you will lose badly); but you use your upper class horse to race his middle class horse and use your middle class horse to race his lower class horse then you will beat your competitor by two to one."
This example is illustrated in Figure 1:
Principle 4: Asymmetry
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu explained: "While following the rules of the strategy and tactics be prepared to take advantage of circumstances not covered by conventional thinking. If the opportunities present themselves then the leader should be flexible in his plans and adapt to the new circumstances."
Principle 21: Skipping (only partially related)
This strategy is also consistent with TRIZ on the optimal use of resources.
Farmers often use a stick to beat the grass to create vibration so the snakes will get out and run away.
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote: "When we fight, the best strategy is to win by intelligence and wisdom, the second is to win by diplomacy then it is to win by battle. The worst strategy is to win by costly city by city fight."
"With regard to height, if you occupy them before the enemy you can wait for enemy to climb up. But if he has occupied them before you, do not follow but try to entice them out."
Never directly attack a well entrenched opponent. Instead lure the opponent away from the stronghold and separate the opponent from its source of strength.
Draw the harmful effects away
In certain situations, where an individual has their opponent surrounded and under pressure, there is the danger that they will use all their energy to put up a fierce fight. In such a case, if an individual gives their opponent a chance or a hope to be free their will to fight will disappear. An individual can take advantage of this and place their opponent under control.
Principle 16: Partial or excessive action (only partially related)
The brick means something insignificant, the jade means something valuable. Throw something insignificant as bait to attract a big fish in return.
Principle 13: The other way around
A Chinese proverb states: "To kill a snake in one shot, you have to hit its vital point precisely."
This strategy is related to the function analysis approach of TRIZ to identify the zone of conflict and to identify the vulnerability of the system.
A Chinese proverb states: "When you have boiling water in the pot, adding cold water will not cool it down effectively, but removing the firewood will."
In The Thirty Six Strategies the explanation is: "Fire is the strongest ‘yang' it is hard to fight, however, the source of fire is wood it is ‘ying' and it is easy to remove. Removing this source is the easiest way to fight fire."
It is wise not to fight something powerful directly. Instead undermine its foundation and remove its source of power.
There were no relevant TRIZ principles.
A Chinese proverb reads: "If you can make water really murky then fish will lose sight so it is easy to catch them." In The Thirty Six Strategies one of the explanations includes: "Darkness makes people powerless."
This strategy exploits the fact that chaos can create many opportunities.
When cicadas grow to their adult stage they shed their empty shells in trees. It looks like the cicada is still there, but actually the cicada is gone and grows bigger and stronger with a different identity. Shown in Figures 2 and 3:
When faced with a weak enemy if there is a chance to eliminate it once and for all make sure to shut down all escape routes and eliminate the enemy without leaving any possibility for its rebirth or to regrow.
Principle 20: Continuity of useful action
Around 300 BC, the Qin was the strongest state in China. An advisor to the emperor proposed a strategy to the emperor. Japanese strong man Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) gave the following description of this strategy:
"Let us proceed with caution, concentrating our strength and add to it daily. By winning over to our side those barons who are vassal of the enemy then when the enemy stands alone, like a tree shorn of its leaves and branches, we will attack and destroy the root!"
The distance-time-cost tool in TRIZ and functional analysis share some common thoughts with the Honda strategy.
The name of this strategy comes from a story from the spring, autumn period of China (8-5 BC). One big power pretended to borrow the road from a small neighbor (who agreed) in order to attack another small state. When the big power's army marched back home it conquered them and the neighbors.
The Thirty Six Strategies explained this strategy as: "When there are major powers and small powers, the smart way to play is for a major power to make a bit better offer to smaller powers in order to gain control over them."
This strategy shares common thoughts with TRIZ on the effective use of resources, especially on the use of borrowed resources.
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu said: "The generals are the supporting pillar of the state. If their talents are superior, the state will be strong. If the supporting pillar is marked by fissures, the state will grow weak."
Principle 35: Parameter change
A Chinese proverb says: "Kill a chicken to scare monkeys." This strategy is about indirect warning. In The Thirty Six Strategies, this strategy is explained as: "Even when you are strong, using warning instead of direct force can get things done easier and better."
The U.S. attacked Grenada in 1983 to send a strong signal to Nicaragua and Cuba.
In functional analysis or Su-field analysis in TRIZ, sometimes the use of ancillary fields to influence objects is recommended. This approach shares common thoughts with Strategy 26.
In The Thirty Six Strategies this strategy is explained as: "It is better to pretend knowing nothing, than pretend to know a lot more than you actually are, so you won't make decision or do things recklessly."
Lucius Junius Brutus (founder of the Roman republic) feigned idiocy for many years while he secretly prepared to depose Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last King of Rome.
Principle 35: Parameter change
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote: "Avoid terrain that features cliffs and crags, narrow passes, tangled bush and quagmires. While avoiding such places ourselves, try to lure the enemy into such areas so that when we attack the enemy will have this type of terrain at his rear."
Use bait and deception, lure the enemy into traps and then shut off the escape routes.
Soldier Napoleon Bonaparte had been spurred on by the prize of capturing Moscow and with it the defeat of Russia; however, all he found was a burned, empty city; his forces were cut off in hostile terrain and in bad weather with no supplies.
In The Thirty Six Strategies this strategy is explained as: "Birds' feathers make them look bigger than they actually are. Fake flowers combined with real trees can make them look nice."
In Disney's shows, both simulation and real performance are mixed to achieve spectacular effects.
In The Thirty Six Strategies this strategy is explained as: "At first, you need to put a foothold on the place then make gain steadily, finally you can take over the key positions."
After World War II, Toyota was a tiny, weak automobile company. It sent a delegation led by Taichi Ohno (considered to be the father of the Toyota Production System) to learn from the Ford Motor Company. They stayed in the Ford Rouge plant for months to learn Ford's production system, but Toyota looked into the weaknesses of Ford as well. Toyota was a quiet, seemingly harmless guest to the U.S. "big three" companies for a long time.
In The Thirty Six Strategies this strategy is explained as: "If enemy's soldiers are too strong then you will try to work on their generals. If their generals are very smart then you will try to mess up their emotional life and spirit." The title of this strategy is rooted in some legends that opponents use beautiful women to cause rulers discord.
Take advantage of the fatal attractions of the opponents to weaken them. Make them make mistakes.
The use of chemicals released by female pests to lure male pests to trap or poison in pest control practices.
Principle 8: Antiweight
A Chinese legend said that in 3rd century BC one of the most famous Chinese strategists faced a dire situation. The enemy's strong army suddenly appeared in sight and he had few in his army to defend the city. The strategist opened the city gate and made the city look defenseless while he played a musical instrument. His enemy was suspicious and afraid of ambush and disappeared.
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu said: "When weak, appear strong, when strong, appear weak."
Psychologically, people are used to following paradigms. When behavior is out of the ordinary it will confuse people. Take advantage of this and get out of trouble temporarily.
This strategy is a good example of taking advantage of people's psychological inertia, which TRIZ is trying to overcome.
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu explained: "Reduce the effectiveness of your enemy by inflicting discord among them."
Undermine the enemy's ability to fight by secretly causing discord among them, their friends, allies, advisors, family, commanders, soldiers and population. While they are preoccupied settling internal disputes their ability to attack or defend will be compromised.
This strategy is also a good example of taking advantage of people's psychological inertia.
A chief executive officer (CEO) only earns one dollar in salary to gain support and sympathy from employees.
This strategy is also a good example of taking advantage of people's psychological inertia.
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu described: "Do not repeat tactics which gained you victory in the past, but let your tactics be molded by infinite variety of circumstances."
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote: "If greatly outnumbered then retreat. While it is possible for a small force to put up a great fight, in the end it will lose to superior numbers."
In The Thirty Six Strategies this strategy is explained as: "When your side is losing there are only three choices remaining: surrender, compromise or escape. Surrender is complete defeat, compromise is half defeat, but escape is not defeat. As long as you are not defeated, you still have a chance."
If it becomes obvious that the current course of action will lead to defeat then retreat and regroup.
There are no relevant TRIZ principles.
Though the 36 strategies and TRIZ were created under different situations and cultural backgrounds, the author found some striking similarities, which are described below.
In TRIZ, ideality is a measure of excellence for technical solutions. Ideality is defined by the following ratio:
The higher the ideality, the better the technical solution is for a particular problem. The ultimate goal for TRIZ is to achieve the ideal final result (IFR) where costs and harm will be approaching the minimum and benefits will be approaching the maximum.
In The Thirty Six Strategies all the strategies are about looking for solutions that will achieve maximum benefits with minimal costs and harmful side effects. For example, in the third strategy, "Kill with a borrowed knife" and in the seventh strategy, "create something from nothing," both are trying to accomplish a task without any cost and side effects. In the second strategy, "Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao" and in the fifteenth strategy, "lure the tiger down from the mountain," they are both about fighting to win with minimum loss and maximum effectiveness.
One of the key fundamentals of the 36 strategies can be described by this quote from the Art of War by Sun Tzu: "When we fight, the best strategy is to win by intelligence and wisdom, the second is to win by diplomacy then it is to win by battle. The worst strategy is to win by costly city by city fight."
As described by The Thirty Six Strategies, the first 18 strategies are used when decision makers are in advantageous position. An individual can see that these 18 strategies are about "how to win with maximum benefits and with minimal loss and efforts." The second set of the 18 strategies is used when decision makers are in disadvantageous or even dire positions. An individual can see that these strategies are about "how to reverse the situation to win" or "how to avoid failure" with maximum effectiveness and minimal loss. Clearly, achieving maximum ideality are the common goals of both TRIZ and the 40 inventive principles and the 36 strategies.
Both TRIZ and the 36 strategies serve as eye openers for unusual solutions for particular situations. The inventive principles of TRIZ are summarized by past inventions and they are used when a technical or a non-technical problem faces some difficult-to-solve bottlenecks or contradictions. The application of inventive TRIZ principles is a practice of knowledge and reuse. The application of the 36 strategies has a similar process and purpose. Each strategy is also a summary of past successes. Decision makers would like to reuse the strategy when it fits.
For both the 36 strategies and TRIZ, optimal uses of resources are one of the most important pillars of their approaches. In the 36 strategies, there are many strategies that deal with how to use other resources, optimal timing and so on. In TRIZ, many strategies on the uses of other resources, ignored resources and creation of resources from wastes are developed.
For TRIZ, the study of people's psychological inertia is extensive and many thoughts are developed for overcoming people's psychological inertia in order to develop breakthrough ideas. For the 36 strategies, the enemy's psychological inertia is noticed. Several strategies such as strategies 32, 33 and 34 respectively, take advantage of people's psychological inertia even to their advantage under some dire situations.
There are also several significant differences among the inventive principles of TRIZ and the 36 strategies, summarized as follows:
The inventive principles of TRIZ, whether the original 40 inventive principles or the newer versions are derived from patents of various technological fields.6 The purpose of the inventive principles is to serve as a concise, exhaustive list of principles, which are able to summarize "all the tricks" used in the technological inventions documented in patents. When the inventive principles of TRIZ are used in non-technical areas they are mostly customized re-interpretations of principles to various non-technological fields.
The 36 strategies are derived from 3000 years of theory and practices from ancient battlefield tactics, political and diplomatic practices and psychological warfare. The applications of the 36 strategies are mostly in the area of non technical fields such as politics, diplomacy, espionage and business operations. Unlike TRIZ, the 36 strategies are not formally derived from a massive study of all strategies and there are no claims that it is an exhaustive list of all good strategies.
In TRIZ applications, the inventive principles are usually used in combination with the contradiction matrix. The problem is first defined as a contradiction and then the search for relevant inventive principles begins to derive specific solutions from them.
In the 36 strategies, all 36 strategies are divided into six sections:
In the first three sections, the decision makers have an advantageous position and in the second three sections, the decision makers have a disadvantageous position. The application process of the 36 strategies is simply described as "pick and choose the ones that may fit your situation."
Based on the author's analysis, out of 36 strategies, 28 strategies are somewhat relevant or share some common element with 29 of the 40 inventive principles of TRIZ. There are eight strategies that have no resemblance with the 40 inventive principles of TRIZ. There are 11 inventive TRIZ principles that are not remotely used in the 36 strategies.
These 11 inventive TRIZ principles include:
By examining these particular principles, it is not difficult to find that almost all these principles are closely linked to modern technological development. Examples include, principle 18 (mechanical vibration) and principle 23 (feedback).
The eight strategies that are not linked to the 40 inventive principles include:
Based on the author's preliminary analysis, some of these strategies are related to psychological warfare such as strategies 26, 27, 28, 32, 33 and 34. They are not remotely linked to technological inventions. Some of them are multiple stage strategies such as strategies 17, 23, and 30, respectively. They are not linked to patents. Some of them emphasize discovering and resolving vital root causes such as strategies 18 and 19. If all the other knowledge bases of TRIZ are included such as use of resources, Su-field analysis, studies of psychological inertia then an individual will find that the degree of overlapping is much greater. Almost all the 36 strategies share some common thoughts with TRIZ.
In this paper, the 36 strategies from ancient China are thoroughly researched and discussed along with examples of how they overlap with the 40 inventive principles of TRIZ. Both TRIZ and the 36 strategies strive for searching solutions that achieve high ideality and both the 40 inventive principles of TRIZ and the 36 strategies are eye openers that could help to land unusual, creative and effective solutions for difficult problems.
There are also significant differences, TRIZ principles are derived as exhaustive principles describing inventive approaches reflected in patents. The 36 strategies include a short list of fabled strategies from 3000 years of ancient Chinese practices in politics, military battle tactics, psychological warfare and human struggle. The 36 strategies can also be applied to modern day business operations, diplomacy and international politics.
The author's analysis has shown that there are significant overlaps among the 40 inventive principles of TRIZ and the 36 strategies, which underscore the fact that many elements of human wisdom are universal. The author's study also indicates that there are significant distinctions among the 40 inventive principles and the 36 strategies. The 40 inventive principles of TRIZ contain many elements that are not covered by the 36 strategies. The majority of these elements are related to modern technological developments. The 36 strategies also contain many elements that are not related to the 40 inventive principles. Some of these elements are not related to engineering technology areas. Some of these elements are not related to inventions either, however, they are well planned multiple stage strategies or best practices. If all knowledge bases of TRIZ are included, then there is greater overlap of the 36 strategies with TRIZ.
Kai Yang, PhD is a professor at the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Wayne State University. Contact Kai Yang at ac4505 (at) wayne.edu or visit http://www.eng.wayne.edu/page.php?id=574.