Applying Sun Tzu

How do the Sun Tzu principles apply to the art of managing the artist, the process and the success of a theatrical production?

Sun Tzu predicates the base philosophy on one simple premise, ” it is better to achieve victory (goals) with out fighting, through better understanding of the necessities of the situation, more complete preparation of the plan, a better understanding of the opponent (people you are dealing with), better resource development, the trust of teammates, better management of expectations as well as actions. Making the plan ultimately dependable, workable and adaptable.

Why did I turn to Sun Tzu?

When I took over as production manager at the George Street Playhouse i knew one thing I wanted to accomplish; “to find a better way”. I realized communication was my major complaint with the general operation of a theatrical project. Certainly this was due in part to the lack of instruction. I had very limited interaction with a PM at that time, and I believe it was only the very high end companies that really were starting to make use of the position and we at UNL had not been taught the aspects of management from that perspective. When I found myself in the position I knew I need to deal with budget, schedule, staff etc. but had no real mechanism to use as a foundation to cope with the varying aspects of the job or the needs of those I was responsible to, and for. I stumbled on a document in the library which was the Giles translation of Sun Tzu from 1910. I can’t really say what made me decide I could equate it management but it seemed to be saying that to me from the start. I think I always had an interest in the military and on phrase stuck with me over the years “when the first shot is fired the battle plan goes out the window” it became about being clear and committed to achieving the goal and being able to adapt to current situations with out losing site of your goal, sanity or the trust of your team. The Sun Tzu text seemed to offer some insight into the reality of those issues.

How do I use the doctrine? I don’t use the text as a bible, at least, not generally. I do use it as a foundation and will from time to time refresh my understanding of the principles.

What translation is best?

I started with the Giles 1910 translation which is a bit thick and requires your own ability to translate into a context you can use as a manager.

When I started teaching the philosophy at CalArts I needed a text that was more accessible for me, the students and the faculty in order to grasp the base ideas and learn how to apply them. The interesting thing to me about dealing with any of this is it really isn’t deep, part of it understanding just that. Part of what Sun Tzu  professes through out, is preparedness, due diligence, simple complete execution of a plan.

Example One-Translating/Interpreting Sun Tzu Text


Any plan is only as good as it’s ability to adapt to current situations. TAW relates in several ways. In chapter 1 he speaks of the 5 constant factors

  1. Moral Influence or Tao That in which we believe (we can’t adapt something we don’t believe in)
  2. Weather or Heaven Those things beyond our control(We have to anticipate the probable, possible and likely of things which are out of our control)
  3. Terrain or Earth Things grounded that we can see feel and plan for. (Terrain should always be in our control)
  4. Commander or General Who leads us, this speaks to a level of trust necessary for any one to follow, trust comes from what(If we trust in those who we follow we will be willing to accept the inevitable change as part of the plan)
  5. Doctrine or Method Here we differ based on the translation as Doctrine is considered guiding principles while method refers to how. This interpretation is open to the individual based on current circumstances.(As doctrine relates to the principles that allow us to move with confidence towards achieving the goal, it is methods that put into motion the specifics of the plan with the necessary resources for success)

Due Diligence

Definition: Function noun (Dated 1903): The care that a reasonable person exercises under the circumstances to avoid harm to other persons or their property 2 : research and analysis of a company or organization done in preparation for a business transaction (as a corporate merger or purchase of securities)

Due Diligence is a term used for a number of concepts involving either the performance of an investigation of a business or person, or the performance of an act with a certain standard of care. It can be a legal obligation, but the term will more commonly apply to voluntary investigations. A common example of due diligence in various industries is the process through which a potential acquirer evaluates a target company or its assets for acquisition.[

By application from chapter 3: In order to achieve victory (success)

And so knowing victory is five fold

  1. Knowing when one can and cannot do battle is victory
  2. Knowing the use of the many and the few is victory
  3. Superior and inferior desiring the same is victory
  4. Being prepared and awaiting the unprepared is victory
  5. The general being capable and the ruler not interfering is victory

These 5 are the Tao of knowing victory

These conditions require your complete attention as you are asked to do more, faster, while accommodating all others who need your engagement.

Understanding it is the way and that many have traveled before provides the foundation to succeed. Everyman can travel where someone else has gone before. So to the point of Due Diligence, conduct your business better than others or at least as well will ensure the best possible outcome. In this light, you work to understand your opponent, colleagues, collaborators, staff, etc.

  1. Understanding yourself
  2. Achievable goals
  3. Win without fighting
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