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Six Steps To Improve Your Business Timing According to Sun Tzu’s Art of War

By Chin-Ning Chu

The distinction between the eastern and western philosophies of warfare is important to keep in mind. Sun Tzu’s Art of War, which has been studied by military leaders, politicians, and businessmen around the world for hundreds of years, is not about war at all. It is a set of strategic thinking skills designed to help you to achieve your objective in the most efficient way possible. That objective can be a military victory, but it can also be winning on the business battlefield—whether you are trying to outsmart the competition or “simply” working on gain a promotion at work. It is all about how the small can overcome the mighty

Sun Tzu who lived around two thousand six hundred years ago in his classic treatise “Sun Tzu Bing-Fa” (Sun Tzu’s Art of War) said:

Before waging a war, the five elements that govern success must be examined. Only then can a proper assessment be done.

Those five elements are 1. Tao (moral standing, ethics), Tien (Timing), Di (terrain or resources), Jiang (leadership), Fa (managing).

By interweaving these five elements together one creates a holistic approach to winning. In my recently published new book The Art of War for Women (Doubleday/Currency), (www.theartofwarforwomen.comI show the readers how the “inferior” can overcome the superior by integrating all these elements.

In this article, I want to focus on examining how we can improve our business timing in a very competitive environment.

proficient warrior seeks victory by employing opportune timing. (Sun Tzu’s Art of War)

Timing really is everything. You cannot sell people something when they don’t want it; rather, your products must answer an unconscious longing within them. When they see it, they will realize they have been waiting for it. The timing is right. If your product or service is ahead of the general public’s taste, sales will lag. If it hits the market too late, you miss the trend. In either case, the timing wasn’t right.

Great timing (Tien) is born out of the synchronicity between the surfacing of unconscious collective desires and the readiness of the perfect ideas/products/people to meet those desires.

There are two kinds of timing, universal timing, and personal timing. Universal timing is a gift of the universe which we will not discuss this in here. The personal timing we have some control of. The obvious follow-up question is: Is there a way I can improve my personal timing in business? I think there is. In fact, there are six things you can do to improve your timing and by doing so increase your chances of success.


1. Notice the signals of timing hidden all around.

Heaven is signified by Yin and Yang, manifested as summer and winter and the changing of the four seasons.

(Sun Tzu’s Art of War)

An idea whose time has almost come gives subtle—but unmistakable—hints, often even leaving behind a physical trail of its presence.

Take the fashion business, for example. Most people believe that designers dictate what we will wear—that each “look” springs solely out of their imaginations.

The designers themselves don’t think that is the case. During an interview, Donna Karan was asked how she determined what to design for the next season.

Her answer was disarmingly simple. She explained that she paid attention to the signals, large and small, all around her. Certain colors or designs would appear and reappear over and over on the street, in the subway, or on television. These signals let her know what was going on in the mind of the masses. She used these signs as a guide to making sure that she was on the right track with what she was designing.

Everyone can relate to this. At one time or another, we each have used this “nonscientiï¬?c” common sense process to help us make decisions about when, how, and whether to proceed with certain projects.

2. Be in tune with the timing of potential partners.

The flying eagle is able to destroy its prey due to its precise coordination of distance and time.

The skillful warrior, during the battle, avoids the enemy’s high-spirited moments

and attacks when the enemy is anxious.

(Sun Tzu’s Art of War)

Here’s a simple example. People in the seminar business know that timing—scheduling, in their case—is critical to a seminar’s success. If their companies pay the seminar fee, attendees prefer that the seminar be held during the business week. If they are paying for the seminar themselves, they want it to be held on a weekend. And, of course, seminar planners try not to hold events between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, when people are dealing with the stress and the complications of the holidays.

If you are making a sales call or presenting a business proposal, it is best to avoid your customers’ resistive periods. Each customer has at least one, but it is up to you to learn when it is. For some, it could be Monday morning; for others, Friday afternoon. I know a magazine publisher whose most mellow time is after five-thirty when all the employees have left and the office chaos has settled down. This is the best time to reach him. (It also helps that by ï¬?ve-thirty, his assistant has gone home for the day and he answers his own phone.)

3. Be aware of the relationship between your objective and your timing.

The good warrior’s staging of an attack is like the bending

of the crossbow full of momentum and potential.

When he releases the trigger, the arrow flies with a precise calculation combining distance, timing, and target.

Not too early, not too late.

(Sun Tzu’s Art of War)

Odds are your climb to the top will take longer—often a lot longer—than you would like. You will not become a CEO or CIO during your second week as an administrative assistant.

When you are not aware of how long it will take to achieve your objective, you’re like a farmer constantly pulling crops up by the root to see how fast they are growing. You need a realistic understanding of how long it will take to achieve your objective.

There are no hard-and-fast rules here. Timing doesn’t always mean being first to market. Diet Coke didn’t create the first no-calorie soft drink market. Dell didn’t invent the personal computer. Southwest Airlines wasn’t the first regional airline.

There are times when you might want your competitor to launch his product first, paying for the high cost of educating consumers, distributors, and retailers about what the new innovation is all about. And then, only when the market is ready, do you come swooping in.

You have to determine where your strengths lie. If it is in research and development, then you do want to be first to market. If you are best at controlling costs—and therefore can be the low-cost supplier—then you want to follow the leaders and undercut their prices. The point is to align your objective with timing.

4. Use your intuition to improve your timing.

A prominent publisher once told me, “I stick my finger up and feel what the air is telling me about which book to buy.” I don’t think she was joking. Timing is closely associated with intuition, that gut feeling that you cannot necessarily explain but that invariably leads you to the right decision. If we can tap our intuition, it can certainly help us detect the “rightness” of our timing.

People who are sensitive, empathic, and loving and who give freely tend to be more naturally intuitive. You can take some simple steps to sharpen your intuition:

Intuition is like a muscle; the more you use it, the better it will develop. Whenever possible, before trying to “figure out” the right answer to a problem you’re facing, try to sense what to do.

a. Start small. Before you open your mailbox, try to “feel” what’s inside the box. Is the box very full or rather empty? What does it look like—is it full of a lot of magazines and junk mail, or only a couple of letters?

b. When you “guessed” correctly, note your state of mind. Odds are you were calm. We generally call this the “gut feeling,” and far too many of us ignore it—often, as we realize later, to our detriment. There is a reason that the first sentence of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care, the child-rearing bible, is “You know more than you think you do.”

In The Power of Intuition (Doubleday/Currency), Gary Klein, a psychologist, and noted researcher, very carefully and methodically lays out a convincing case that can be boiled down to this: Trust your gut.

Yes, skills, training, and education are helpful but don’t underestimate the power of intuition. “I define intuition as the way we translate our experience into action,” writes Klein, who heads his own consulting ï¬?rm. “Our experience lets us recognize what is going on (making judgments) and how to react (making decisions.) Because our experience enables us to recognize what to do …we don’t deliberately have to think through issues to arrive at good decisions [quickly].”

c. Practice meditation to calm your mind down so you can be a sharp radio receiver, someone who takes in images without unwanted mental static. You’ll be amazed at what you’re able to see. There are many different types of meditation that you can explore, but a good way to start is simply by sitting quietly and focusing on your breath. You may ï¬?nd it helpful to look at a vast space, such as the ocean, desert, or sky. There are also activities and games that can help you improve your focus: golf and knitting are two examples. Even sitting in a rocking chair can help calm the mind.

5. Back up your intuition with data and planning.

Sun Tzu believed that there are only three approaches to planning, and he explained the consequences of each:

a. Meticulous planning. Before engaging in battle, you have already won the war.

b. Careless planning. Before engaging in battle, you may have already lost the war.

c. No planning. Your defeat is certain.

(Sun Tzu’s Art of War)

In other words, planning is the key to success. Until you are absolutely certain of your instincts, you should plan on gathering solid data to back up your intuition. By tapping into your gut feeling (intuition) you can narrow down the 360 degrees of possibilities to a speci�c direction. Once you set your direction, then gather data to prove or disprove the workability of your gut feelings.

6. Use common sense.

As Master Sun put it, “There is a proper season and time for utilizing ï¬?re to attack the enemy.”

If the wind is blowing toward you, for example, you would not set �re to the enemy camp. Always check which way the wind is blowing before you attempt to introduce a new idea at work.


A skillful warrior marches his/her troops into battle by stirring up an overwhelming force of momentum.

(Sun Tzu’s Art of War)

You can improve your personal timing by tapping into your personal intuition and by doing your homework, but unless your intentions are in line with Tao (moral standing, ethics), your timing will always be off.

We may not be able to control timing, but we can improve it by supplementing our intuition with common sense and experience and then following up by executing our plans in an ethical (and timely) manner. By incorporating Tao into our day-to-day lives, we will naturally improve our timing. Where there is timing, there is momentum, and with momentum on your side, you’ll ï¬?nd it much easier to achieve your goals.

By Chin-Ning Chu copyright2007

About the author

Chin-Ning Chu, an internationally renowned speaker, and the best-selling author, is a descendant of Chu Yuan-Zhang, the pauper who became the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty by defeating the descendant of Genghis Khan. Her books including The Art of War for Women, Thick, Face Black Heart, Do Less Achieve More, The Asian Mind Game. For more information, please visit Chin-Ning Chu’s web site at


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