The Art of War for Project Managers 1.3 – Understanding the Five Measures

After listing the five measures (see Chapter 1 – Part 2), Sun Tzu provides an explanation of each of the elements. Throughout the Art of War there are a number of places where Sun Tzu offers an explanation through the use of contrasts and by listing elements which, when grouped together, provide a more complete explanation of the point he is trying to make. If this seems a bit daunting, consider the way the none of the traditional elements that make up a true project plan (Charter, Risk Plan, Communications Plan, Project Schedule, etc.) provide as complete an explanation of what the project entails individually as they do when grouped together.

The Tao (The Way)

Sun Tzu explains The Tao (or The Way) as the thing that unites men with the mind of the person leading them in an unwavering way, despite the threat of death. For a project, or an organization, this would extend beyond a mission or vision statement into how it plays out within the culture of those involved, either uniting them, or not.

Heaven (The Political Environment)

In defining Heaven and Earth, which I defined (in Chapter 1 – Part 2) as being akin to the Political Environment and the Organizational Structure, they are respectively explained as a balance of opposites and measures.

Heaven is
Yin and Yang,
Cold and Hot
The cycle of seasons

When applied to a political environment, the cyclical, dynamic but dependable state of the four changing seasons gives context to the listing of the opposites above. The political nature of an organization will always be in flux. There will always be opposing forces, but the dynamically shifting nature of that balance is something to be relied upon and carefully monitored. So, regardless of what type of political situation you face, you can always depend on the fact that change is coming and no matter how things are balanced today, they will be different tomorrow. Trust in the change, not in the state.

Earth (The Organizational Structure)

The organizational structure, or Earth, is defined in a list of actual measures:

… Height and depth,
Distance and proximity
Ease and Danger…

While it may be simpler to see, it is no less critical than the political environment/Heaven. Because it is less abstract, it can be examined in a more exact way, using more tangible metrics. However, Heaven and Earth are paired in the Art of War. The organizational structure and political environment can’t be seen individually. They are a pair, and moreover, as part of the five measures, just two of the ways we experience that with which we are interacting.

Command (Leadership)

In explaining what he means by Leadership, or Command, Sun Tzu provides a list of ingredients. I have always worked under the assumption that these have been listed in a particular order based on the overall importance of each to organizational maturity (with Wisdom being prized above all and Severity as the lowest ranking critical value), but that may just be me. Either way, if you were to examine an organization and rate them along each of these points, you would be able to develop a fairly clear understanding of the overall value system and (arguably) maturity of that organization.




Discipline is perhaps the easiest of the five measures for a project manager to understand. It is defined as…

Chain of command
Control of expenditure

This is a simple, concrete explanation.

Sun Tzu closes out this section of the chapter by saying that every leader is aware of the five measures, but there is a difference between being aware and truly understanding them.

He who grasps them wins
He who fails to grasp them loses

According to The Art of War, there are five vantage points from which you should be studying any organization/company/opportunity/opponent/insert name of thing you are facing that you are scared of or do not understand here. If you study the five measures for your situation to a point where you have true clarity on each of them, then by your very understanding of them, you will succeed. However, if you don’t, by your very lack of understanding, will fail.

To use a simple analogy, assuming you have all five of your senses available to you, (because as Sun Tzu says, “Every commander is aware of these five fundamentals”, you experience the world through taste, touch, smell, sight and sound, all together. If you had the ability to see, but started ignoring any visual input, how true would your understanding of the world be? How successful would you be in it? And perhaps more importantly, how safe would you be?

Quotes listed in this entry are taken from John Minford’s Penguin Books Great Ideas translation Sun Tzu The Art of War (Strike with Chaos) published by Penguin books in 2006. The passage covered in this entry can be found on pages 2 and 3 of the book.