The stratagem I’m going to present to you is from the book The 36 stratagems, a Chinese masterpiece that can be of interest to anyone involved in conflict situations: in business, politics and private life.
Instead of directly attacking the strongest part of the enemy, indirectly weakens the enemy’s momentum. That is to say, by turning the weak into the strong in a soft way.
The stratagem is to avoid the momentum of the aggressive enemy and find a way to reduce the impetus of his attack: do not face the enemy’s strength but undermine his power.
When the opponent is powerful and combative (like a cauldron red-hot from a strong, well-fuelled fire) and you do not know the real consistency of his strength, attacking him head-on can be extremely dangerous; it is better to understand the sources of his strength and determination and work to defuse them (i.e. remove the firewood under the pot).
The water boils in the pot because of the fire, which is fed by the firewood; while boiling water is extremely dangerous (no one would ever think of removing the pot from the fire with bare hands), getting close to the wood may involve little or no risk.
Therefore, if you want to reduce the boil, two different options can be adopted: pour cold water over it or remove the wood that feeds the fire.
Of course, with the first option the outcome will be irrelevant, by adopting the second you will stop the boil without taking great risks.
What are the forms that can take the opponent’s strength and combativity? How can we reduce them?
There are two primary points of attack:
However, going into more detail, cutting off supplies and weakening morale can be accomplished through three different means:
Taking the firewood out from under the pot is among the stratagems employed when the conflict is confusing; the scenario is unclear and it is difficult to assess the consistency of the contending forces, which of the opponents has the best chance of prevailing, who is in an attacking position and who is defending.
This example is taken from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and tells of the Battle of Guandu, in which Cao Cao and Yuan Shao confront each other for control of northern China at the end of the Eastern Han dynasty period (206 BC to 220 AD); the episode shows an application of the stratagem to both cut-off supplies and weakening morale.
Yuan Shao’s army was superior; he could count on one hundred thousand soldiers, while Cao Cao had only twenty thousand under his command.
In such a situation, Cao Cao, despite being an experienced and prestigious general, was at a huge disadvantage. He had so far achieved numerous victories in battles of limited scope, but now, faced with an army five times his size, the only choice that appeared to make sense was to slowly retreat. His soldiers had barely managed to hold out at Guandu and it was clear that a head-on clash would have seen him succumb.
The turning point occurred when Cao Cao learnt from surrendering enemy soldiers that the military supplies of Yuan Shao’s army were stored in a place called Wu Ch’ao (literally, Crow’s Nest), whose defences were inadequate to cope with a well-organised attack.
Cao Cao decided to take the firewood out from under the pot: he led his five thousand best soldiers and organised a night incursion, which destroyed the supplies of the rival army.
After this episode, the conflict’s course changed: Yuan Shao’s army suddenly faced a shortage of supplies and sharp internal divisions erupted.
Their determination began to falter and confusion spread, undermining their ability to get organised and prepare for battle.
When Cao Cao’s forces subsequently attacked, Kuan Shao’s army was defeated and put to flight.
Now, in a more recent example, we see how disinformation can be used to weaken the morale of the opponent.
At the beginning of the Second World War, the new German U-boat submarine was almost ready; the reputation of the new weapon was such that, even before the construction of the first group of units had been completed, many thousands of young Germans had volunteered to be part of its crew.
British intelligence was aware of the situation and quite concerned about the danger represented by the U-boat; therefore, they promptly started a counter-information campaign, distributing in Germany leaflets explaining how hard and dangerous life in a submarine might be.
In addition, radio broadcasts provided young Germans with information about illnesses they could simulate to avoid being boarded in a submarine.
The result was that enthusiasm for the U-boats waned and widespread mistrust of such vessels took hold; the deployment of the new submarine was therefore delayed by several months, beyond expectations.
This is a frequently used stratagem: let’s look at some examples.
Here is a case that you may find interesting, because of its diverse implications.
The business manager was on the outs with the CEO; the divergences were both strategic and managerial.
The company was facing a difficult moment and the business manager had been called upon to relaunch it, counting on specific and guaranteed investments; however, the CEO, under pressure from the board of directors about the budget, rather than impose on other company functions a plan to contain expenses, had preferred to cut the resources allocated to investments.
The stratagem was implemented through two striking actions: the CEO significantly reduced the business investments while keeping the targets unchanged (see cartoon strip), and he moved a key person from sales to the procurement dept.
The goal of cutting resources and putting the business manager in a difficult position was achieved, not the relaunch of the company.
Taking the firewood out of the pot is a rather common practice in organizational conflict: giving a key person in a specific department a different, unwanted role, or reducing investments to make it difficult to achieve targets are typical actions aimed at cutting resources and/or breaking the spirit of people.
To conclude this certainly incomplete review, here is a strategy that can help you when you have made a (not so insignificant… ) mistake; in such cases, immediately revealing what happened and openly describing the situation will help you remove the wood under your adversary’s pot, and defuse the danger more than any frantic attempt to deny the incident: a strategy that will allow you to limit reprimands, helping you to build the image of an open and transparent person.
A stratagem to remember, because nobody is infallible.
There are numerous applications in the military sphere, all aimed at reducing the risk of direct and bloody confrontation:
A not so evident form of conflict is the brain war, which is played out between nations vying for people with valuable or even exclusive skills; scientists, managers, university professors and generally people who can guarantee a competitive advantage in a specific technological, scientific or business sector.
On this stratagem, the United States has built a global economic leadership, attracting people by leveraging two variables: high salaries and working conditions by many considered optimal.
Also in this area, the stratagem is quite common.
Taking the firewood out of a competitor’s pot often takes the form of recruiting valuable people from a rival company: in this case, the strengthening of one company is combined with the weakening of the other.
Another relevant case is the advertising pressure that a competitor can exert through the media on a geographic area or a specific target to gain consumers from one or more competitors; in such cases, a specific advertising pressure has several effects:
An interesting example of the application of the stratagem in sports occurred in 1986 when Silvio Berlusconi, an Italian businessman and politician, acquired the majority shareholding in A.C. Milan, one of the most prestigious football clubs in the world; in the years that followed, Milan, in addition to securing players of national and international prominence, greatly enriched the football team by recruiting top athletes from their club; players who, however, never found a continuous spot in the first team.
The stratagem is widely used in competitive negotiation, where one party tries to prevail over the other without caring that the results are consistent with those of all parties involved.
In a negotiation of this type, the stratagem has the purpose of breaking the other party’s spirit, to make them accept our conditions. The shapes it can take are different, all aimed at diminishing the sense of self-efficacy through a personal attack that can be variously structured:
Taking the firewood out of the pot is a dominant theme in a couple’s life. Too many women find it difficult to break off a relationship because the man, who is usually the economically stronger party, can cut off the resources needed for living; hence the woman avoids difficult choices not to find herself in situations of severe need (for herself and often for her children), up to extreme cases of bearing domestic violence.
The case of the premarital contract represents an interesting case for the application or the stratagem’s prevention. Two cases may represent the two sides of the same coin:
In this case, a widespread application of the stratagem is to deprive sons and/or daughters of the resources they need to pursue a goal because of behaviours that are considered for some reason inappropriate: cutting “pocket money,” banning the use of bicycles/scooters to cutting college tuition are widespread examples of the application of the stratagem in the family context.
There are three main variables, all crucial: the analysis of the resources the opponent can count on, his emotional vulnerability, and the time required for the actions to produce their effect.
Identifying a clear and accurate map of the resources the adversary can count on means being able to identify the factors to focus on to reduce his strength; it will then be possible to contain his power with limited resources and lower risks.
The knowledge of the opponent’s psychology and his way of facing negative events and attacks will help us to identify one or more means for weakening his self-esteem; this point is of utmost importance, because a poorly focused opponent is more likely to make mistakes that could prove fatal.
In this regard, it might be useful to ask ourselves a few questions before acting:
Finally, time. Cuts in resources and actions that aim to diminish self-efficacy and self-esteem rarely have an immediate effect; therefore, it is essential to carefully evaluate the actions to take and prepare to be patient, because the results may be visible sometime later.
Risks are all related to possible misjudgements of the key factors discussed in the previous section.
We may, for example, be sure that we have a clear idea of the resources the opponent can count on and that we have cut off supplies; on the contrary, the opponent may have carefully concealed resources that now allow him to resist. In essence, it is appropriate to carefully assess the quality of the firewood.
For example, adopting economic sanctions against a country while neglecting possible alternatives to which the country might resort can diminish the effectiveness of the sanctions themselves or even make them vain.
Similarly, we may underestimate the psychological resilience of the opponent, who may be more resilient than we estimate and resist attacks while maintaining unchanged self-confidence and determination to prevail in the conflict.
In a more and more connected world, successfully facing the stratagem that aims to remove the firewood under the pot may seem a prohibitive task.
However, it is possible to adopt some strategies that can day by day increase your strength.
Here are a few that, in my experience, has proven to be highly effective:
Taking the firewood out of the pot is one of the most adopted stratagems, that you will surely have to face at least once in your lifetime; therefore, patient building of psychological and professional resilience is the best weapon you can adopt.