Data & The Art of War

Andrew Paddison
Head of Data and Insights

5 Key Lessons for Data Strategy from the 5th Century BC

Brands battling for market share is a form of warfare. Just have a look at the common language we use: mission statements, campaigns, targeting, tactics, territory.

The focus of designing, building, and optimizing the weapons that will win that war is the preoccupation of Product Owners, UX Designers,Technologists and Data Scientists.

To help us, Sun-tzu wrote “The Art of War” (his guide to military strategy) in the 5th century BC.

His core message - “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” has found its way into management text books, to Hollywood and beyond.

I don’t throw darts at a board. I bet on sure things. Read Sun-tzu, The Art of War. Every battle is won before it is ever fought.


Gordon Gecko, “Wall Street” (1987)

Sun-tzu's wise insights inform the Data & Insights framework that we use at Candyspace for delivering game-changing apps, websites and digital products - delighting customers and growing businesses.

So here’s our action plan based on his 5th Century BC wisdom.

1. Establish business objectives

The rule for military operations is that the military leadership receives the order from the civilian leadership to gather armies.


It all begins with the brief. It pays to spend time at the outset questioning the business model and how the desired outcome can best be delivered.

Any available data on existing customer behaviour is invaluable. We want to understand the shape and characteristics of the conversion funnel and apply competitor understanding, sector knowledge and customer insight to it.

There are routes not to be followed, armies not to be attacked, citadels not to be besieged, territory not to be fought over, orders of civilian governments not to be obeyed.


By setting clear business objectives we can explore scenarios covering conversion rates from activation through retention getting a clear understanding of what success might look like.

Working the numbers in this way really puts the business model to the test before any work is undertaken. Sometimes it’s necessary to challenge and revisit the objectives - ultimately that is what leads to delighted customers and business growth.

... the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat.


2. Audit Data and Customer Analytics

Understanding the marketplace and customer behaviour are key to building a better product. Insight and customer analytics must come from a solid foundation of data whether it is market information or direct customer analysis.

So it is crucial to identify sources of information, customer touchpoints and the platforms that aid collection of this information.

What enables a wise military leadership to overcome others and achieve extraordinary accomplishments is foreknowledge. Knowledge of the enemy's dispositions can only be obtained from other men. Hence the use of spies, of whom there are five classes.

For us Sun-tzu's “spies” are the right tools and platforms for information gathering; the right behavioural analytics platform, research provider, all suited to different aspects of understanding customers and their behaviours.

Hence it is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for purposes of spying and thereby they achieve great results.


Winning customers’ hearts, minds and spend is the modern equivalent of winning territory in war. Knowledge of territory and landscapes has a parallel in understanding customers, their needs and patterns of behaviour.

The natural formation of the country is the soldier's best ally; He who knows these things, and in fighting puts his knowledge into practice, will win his battles.


Having identified and gathered the right data - we must now put it to good use to guide our product development strategy - conducting on-site or in-app behaviour analysis, describing and characterising the conversion funnel and conducting segmentation and lifetime value analysis (where possible).

3. Experiment and Develop

Analytics, research, prediction and solid business planning put us in a good place to win the battle for customers, but there is no substitute for testing. Analysis and observation are necessary to form working hypotheses - which should then be tested “in the wild”.

The different measures suited to the nine varieties of ground; the expediency of aggressive or defensive tactics; and the fundamental laws of human nature: these are things that must most certainly be studied.


Understanding our target customers and the marketplace we can create an experimentation roadmap to deliver maximum learnings and product optimisation in the least time, making best use of resource and budget.


4. Define and Measure

Sun Tzu is clear on the fact that victory can ultimately be attributed to good measurement.

Measurement owes its existence to Earth; Estimation of quantity to Measurement; Calculation to Estimation of quantity; Balancing of chances to Calculation; and Victory to Balancing of chances.


Data (measurement) is the fruit of Experimentation and having the right approach to measurement is crucial. What you measure and how you measure it is an art in itself so be mindful and focused.


5. Be like water

And finally remember...

Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing


Sun-tzu's best advice resonates across the centuries - be like water, measure and adapt and you will be victorious every time.