Focus on the principles not the examples

“All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.” – Sun Tzu

We all use examples to explain our ideas. Some people use examples from the same category, and a small percentage of us use examples that fall outside those categories. To explain these ideas, we conceptualize them into principles.

In the world of strategy, we have stratagems. For example, the golden rule of strategy principle: Do what others are unwilling to do.

And example of how this looks in practice: Map every walkable street on Earth (including those shared with animals).

Most companies wouldn’t think about doing it. But one company didn’t shy away from the challenge: Google.

“Oh, but Google has a ton of resources at their disposal!” people tell me. Yes, they do. But that isn’t the point. The point is that they took on the challenge of doing something nobody thought of or wanted to do. And in doing so, pushed everyone else forward. Next thing you know, people are building 3d buildings and adding meta data to their Google Earth platform.

You may not have Google’s resources, but you can do the same, on a different scale.

For example, if you are just starting a business where you will be playing the middle man and discovered that people are displeased with contracts, what do you do? If you follow the principle above, you will opt to have no contracts.

A real world application of this is the pay-as-you-go model. There are people who don’t mind the hassles of the contracts, there are others who don’t want to deal with them.

This is a very simple example of an applied principle.

Principles, like ideas, are everywhere

Not being able to look beyond a principle’s application is a huge creative blocker because, like most people, organizations copy tactics. Those of us who are in the creative and innovation world, intuitively understand the distinction between principles and tactics. I’m not saying we’re the only ones, but it is a very common problem especially when people want to think outside the box.

Take the disruptive innovation principle, how many really understand it? Not many. It is the same thing as talking about “innovation”. Many have their own definition of what it is, and to the layman, disruptive innovation and innovation are the same. This is why it is crucial that one expand their level of understanding and don’t become domain dependent.

How useful would it be if we could help others look at innovation with a more holistic view?

The point: Game-changing strategies don’t come out of template style thinking. There isn’t a fill-in-the-blank document that will help you come up with game-changing ideas. There are principles though. But many fail to understand them and choose the more superficial approach of just copying tactics.

If you truly want to understand anything, don’t try to replicate the example. Understand how the principle applies to that specific example, and then look for other examples that are not related to what you are looking for. As mentioned before, tactics are superficial, strategy is deep. So, focusing on principles not the examples is another way of saying: understand the strategy, not the tactics.


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