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The typical stratagem of change transition

The 36 stratagems - 20 - Clouding the water to catch the fish

2022 October 10 | by Arduino Mancini Stratagems to succeed

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.


Literal translation

Exploit the enemy’s internal chaos, also taking advantage of his weakness and lack of initiative, to force him to obey our will. Thus, the skilful strategist, after gaining the advantage he sought, can go home and relax happily.


Interpretation of the stratagem

The key points of the stratagem are the ambiguity and complexity of the world, which is essentially confused and mutable: a world in which situations are hardly clear and there are plenty of opportunities to fish in murky waters.

The stratagem is used in conflict situations, when is to achieve the goals by exploiting the disorder we ourselves have caused in the adverse territory and taking advantage of the enemy’s weakness and loss of initiative; the confused situation makes it difficult for the opponent to find the direction and make appropriate decisions.

The analogy used is the fish that in murky waters cannot discern the way to take, and their uncoordinated action creates situations that can be exploited; the key element in clouding the waters is information, which will have the goal to confuse the truth with the false or, at least, to generate in the opponent the desired perception.

To understand the impact the stratagem might have in a conflict, it may be helpful to read Wang Xi’s commentary in the chapter devoted to “The Nine Terrains” in Master Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”:

If you can uncover the opponent’s plans, exploit the advantages of terrain and throw the enemy into despair, even a large country will not be able to gather enough men to stop you.

The modern application of the stratagem is broader and more nuanced because often those who suffer the consequences are not aware to be victims; in fact, the opponent is not always an enemy but simply a person, group, or organization whose behaviour we want to influence.

Here are some examples:

  • The conflict is evident, and the opponents acknowledge that they are fighting against each other. In this case, typical of market competition and military conflict, the use of disinformation can be predicted and, to some extent, coped with;
  • Conflict is latent, and clouding the water is meant to generate dark emotions (e.g., fear, anger, anxiety) to influence individuals and groups, who will find it difficult to navigate. The situation is recurring when organizations experience a deep change, in which conflict is engaged and prevailing is made easier by the uncertainty;
  • – The conflict is not evident, and those who muddy the water want to disorient and gain an advantage over people not aware of granting it. This is the case of political communication, when it is intended to influence the voters for one’s interest, or advertising;
  • Those who employ stratagem intend to influence one or more people to act in their interest: see for this the examples of the application of stratagem in private life.

In the next paragraphs, we will see different applications.


Type of stratagem according to the original classification

“Clouding the water to catch the fish” 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.


Historical example of application

The episode I am going to report is set in the period of the conflicts among the generals pretending to the imperial throne in the anarchy phase that followed the Yellow Turban rebellion, at the end of the Han Dynasty (168 AD).

General Yuan Shao broke into the imperial palace and massacred the eunuchs, imperial advisers who had accumulated much power. Later, in 196 AD, another general, Cao Cao, took the capital and assumed imperial powers: at the Battle of Guandu he defeated Yuan Shao, who also aspired to the throne.

Before this battle, Cao Cao led the army to Wuchao, the town which Yuan Shao had commanded to store food supplies for the army.

At the head of five thousand soldiers and cavalrymen wearing the uniform of Yuan Shao’s troops and under enemy flags, he took advantage of the poor visibility at night to sneak through the opponent’s lines.

On the way, Yuan’s sentinels questioned them, but they fooled them to believe that they were troops sent by Yuan Shao to reinforce the rear.

Beyond the gates, Cao Cao’s men spread confusion and easily infiltrated Wuchao; here Yuan Shao’s army kept stored grain and fodder, which was set on fire.

In the dark night, Yuan Shao’s sentries could see only the glow of flames and fell into chaos, unable to understand what was really happening.

In command of the troops, Cao Cao managed to burn all the enemy’s supplies and make carnage of officers and soldiers.

This sudden and successful attack ensured his success and was crucial to his victory in the Battle of Guandu, which followed shortly thereafter.

The burning of the grain stores is also an employment of the stratagem of “taking the wood out from under the cauldron,” while the camouflage and surprise attack falls within stratagems of the “clouding the water to catch the fish” type.


Modern examples of application

The stratagem is used in a variety of contexts, and something I find interesting is that, as is the case in advertising communication, the victims are not always aware of it; indeed, often they are not at all. Let us look at some examples below.

Organizational setting

The stratagem is largely employed in change situations, which typically involve a transition to a different organizational and management structure (see cartoon strip).

For example, when a new top manager comes in (such as a sales manager, chief information officer or general manager) uncertainty takes the shape of some typical questions:

  • what will he/she do?
  • what will he/she change?
  • will he take his/her people with him/her?
  • who will be fired?

The answer relies on rumours and unverified reports from the outside by well-informed people; in short, the ideal terrain for the stratagem.

Stratagem takes shape when information spreads and disorients people, providing little about upcoming actions and diminishing attention to aspects that will be crucial to the future.

A well-known application of the stratagem is when the new CEO displays his/her approval to the closest staff; later, when everyone has dropped the guard and feels safe, “surgical cleaning” can take shape.

Another typical application of the stratagem is when the manager wants to achieve a goal that is unwelcome to a considerable number of staff members: for example, it may be a reduction of costs or a cut in year-end bonuses. To avoid lengthy and tiring discussions, the manager may avoid touching the subject with individuals, stating that no decisions have been made, and minimizing the extent of the measures; finally, launching the attack in a meeting, telling everyone about the “non-negotiable” news goals.

However, it should not be forgotten that the unclear phases of transition offer opportunities to people who can seize the chances offered by the contingent situation: accepting responsibility for a new project that may be risky, changing jobs in a time of labour market uncertainty, giving a new strategic direction to the business in a turbulent market are three examples that may provide an opportunity to give one’s professional life a turnaround.

Generally speaking, transitions (organizational, technological, social) can offer great opportunities to people who can interpret and grasp them; in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, Thomas Kuhn states that the most substantial advances in science have occurred in presence of large and often sudden changes, which have generated a realignment of whole disciplines and fields of scientific research: Internet, the laptop computer and mobile communication are examples that have a daily impact on our lives.


Negotiation is a typical terrain were generating confusion can be easy and murky waters employed to seize an advantage to the opponent’s detriment.

The tactics employed to cloud the water can be the most diverse. Here are a few:

  • going back to discuss topics on which an agreement has already been reached;
  • dealing with items on the agenda in a different order than originally agreed upon;
  • changing one or more members of the negotiating team;
  • pretending not to understand what the counterpart said, forcing him/her to explain his/her position again, repeatedly;
  • introducing new negotiation topics, not on the original agenda.

The list could be more extensive; it is worth noting that all points are oriented to decrease the counterpart’s focus and sap his/her resistance, prompting him/her to accept unfavourable terms and quickly close the negotiation.

Another tool employed to cloud the water is the “not well defined” threat, which can be worded in diverse ways. For example, a statement such as “If you do not accept my proposal, the consequences could be severe” generates great uncertainty in the listener:

  • what is that supposed to mean?
  • what threat is he/she referring to?
  • what is he/she planning to do?

Such questions cause the counterpart to shift focus from the subject of the negotiation to the implications, consuming energy in analyzing the uncertain and worrying scenario.

In business

Misleading consumers to induce them to buy specific products/services is a widespread practice. Here are some examples:

  • in supermarkets we may find on-the-shelf products that are similar to the market leaders in name and/or packaging;
  • in advertising spots, it is quite common to use testimonials that era look-alikes of famous people, with the advantage of investing much less;
  • lure the customer to the store with the promise of exceptional discounts on one or more products without specifying that the offer is limited to products in stock (with the hope that in the store the customer will end up buying something).

I worked in the ceramic decoration industry, in which the main concern of operators was not to offer tiles that stood out from those of their competitors, but to catch fish with an offer that had traits of stylistic continuity with the prevalent fashion; a strategy that guarantees some advantages:

  • investments in research are rather limited, since all that is needed is a small group of people who can effectively copy what has already been invented;
  • the consumer comes across an offer that makes him/her uniform to the common taste, while guaranteeing him/her some originality and lower investment. And this guarantees acceptable volumes.

This strategy is also quite common in fashion and businesses related to people’s lifestyles.

In politics

Great changes take place when fish “swim in cloudy water.” People are not happy with their lives, they are angry with the State, and they struggle to face everyday difficulties and look for ways out, which can result in events that generate sudden changes; this is witnessed by the great revolutions in history (e.g., the October Revolution that led to the birth of the Soviet Union) and interminable civil wars (e.g., the one that brought to power in China the Communist Party against the nationalist Kuomintang).

While not necessarily leading to social upheavals, political communication often employs the stratagem of making the scenario unclear or oversimplifying it to capture consensus. The means of cloudy water are different, but virtually all of them are grounded on two basic points: many voters do not like or are not prepared to deal with the complexity, and they tend to forget promises and statements made by politicians just a few days apart.

Communication strategies aimed at disorienting voters to capture their consent are often based on a few points:

  • stating something and its opposite, even within days of each other;
  • promising grants and/or benefits even when they have little or no chance of being delivered;
  • oversimplifying choices, hiding the real complexity of the situation;
  • concealing real intentions, especially when inevitable choices would be unwelcome to voters.

A specific mention deserves “benaltrism (from the Italian Benaltrismo)” a communication technique adopted to avoid the discussion of a particularly uncomfortable issue under the pretext that there would be “far more important issues to be addressed.

In warfare

In general, getting the enemy to “confuse the true with the false” by infiltrating the enemy camp using appropriate disguises is intended to create favourable conditions for the frontal attack conducted by the bulk of the army.

In December 1944, as World War II drew to a conclusion, Hitler made a desperate attempt to subvert the course of the war and boost Germany’s morale by unleashing the Battle of the Ardennes; he positioned several hundred thousand reservists and two thousand tanks in the hills of the Ardennes, near the French border, to organize the counteroffensive.

The Germans selected two thousand officers and soldiers who were fluent in English, dressed them in American uniforms and gave them American tanks and jeeps prey to the war; with this disguise, they easily infiltrated the rear of the American army, sabotaged communications, cut power lines, attacked isolated soldiers sometimes replacing killed soldiers to point the wrong direction to the motorized troops passing by, and create confusion in enemy transports.

A group of disguised soldiers managed to reach the banks of the Meuse River to take the bridges and prepare the ground for the bulk of the troops, but the German army was stopped before it could reach Antwerp, the target of the battle.

The disguised German soldiers were eventually captured; the American military authorities, infuriated against them for the enormous damage done, on the pretext that they were not wearing German uniforms denied them the treatment of prisoners of war and shot them on the spot.

The “vague threat,” which we have analyzed in the negotiation paragraph, also has an interesting use in the conflict between nations; letting it be predicted that there will be consequences as a result of hostile actions, although without specifying their nature, is meant to induce the enemy to expend energy in analyzing different options. Stating that “as a result of the attempt to invade our nation with an armed attack, the consequences will be most severe” is intended to cause the other side to doubt the opportunity to pursue the intent and to take time to evaluate the options available for an appropriate response.

In private life

To cloud the water to catch the fish is a rather used stratagem in this context as well.

For example, in a love competition, we may want to insinuate ourselves into a couple’s life to conquer (momentarily or not) the partner we are interested in; in this case, spreading proper information can generate disorientation about authentic or supposed behaviours that can serve the purpose.

The stratagem can also be employed when we want to bring the attention of one or more loved people to a topic other than the one they are focusing on: this may be the case of a person in pain to whom we can offer moments of serenity, or that of children engaged in fighting or spending too much time on potentially harmful activities (e.g., video games, smartphones or other similar tools).

The skilful parent in the latter case does not intervene with reprimand but diverts attention to activities that may be preferred at that moment, “catching fish” in their own interest.


Key factors in employing the stratagem

Here are the ones I suggest you pay attention to:

  • the selection of the means you can employ to cloud the water and generate in people the emotions you seek;
  • the quality of the communication, because the water needs to be cloudy but not prevent ourselves to find the direction;having a clear understanding of the overall strategy, because this stratagem is functional to another, which is meant to be decisive. Therefore, it is crucial to decide which stratagem to follow to catch the fish;
  • choose the time to act after clouding the water, as sooner or later water will become clear again.

Go to the next paragraph to further investigate.


The risks in the application of the stratagem

The application of the stratagem is particularly sensitive to the ability to adapt communication to the specific context.

It is important to consider that the water has to be made cloudy for the fish, but not to such an extent that we too cannot find direction; if, for example, in political communication, we end up generating uncertainty even within our party the stratagem may turn out to be counterproductive.

Moreover, it is crucial to have a clear idea of the context in which the stratagem is being employed, since it is seldom implemented on its own. In the “Historical Example of Application” paragraph we saw that, after catching the fish, Cao Cao removes the wood under the cauldron: uncertainty about the ultimate goal and/or mistake in the timing of the second stratagem can give the water time to regain clarity and make the effort to cloud it in vain.

That’s right, because if the particles that make the water cloudy settle sooner than you wish there is a real risk of making the stratagem useless and even making the situation worse.

A final, fundamental danger that I suggest we pay attention to is that of not making mistakes in identifying the fish to catch. We have seen the risks we can incur in political communication, creating disorientation even within our ranks; similarly, careless or incorrect application of the stratagem in the organizational sphere can also generate disorientation in key people, who may be induced to leave the company: because valuable people are particularly sensitive to clear waters.


Strategies for coping with the stratagem

Strategies for coping with the stratagem may be different, but there are a few points that hold validity in every context, remembering that confusion is the breeding ground for the stratagem.

First of all, it is necessary to remember that the particles artfully dispersed to cloud the water sooner or later will settle out and the water will become clear again; and then to be aware that someone may have had an interest in making the situation unclear, and not reacting emotionally can help you avoid to be the captured: for this, it is always convenient to fully analyze what your interlocutor states, making sure it is understandable and, above all, consistent.

This kind of attitude can be of significant help in the transition periods associated with organizational change; rather than giving in to concern generated by the possible developments, it will be convenient to avoid impulsive reactions and focus on the analysis of the situation.

Asking for clarification about rough communication, making sure you understand the instructions received, focusing on the organization’s plans, and understanding what is expected from you will lower the risk of misperceptions and rash decisions; remembering that the confusion of transition can present opportunities that people capable of a lucid analysis can seize.

In negotiations, the crucial point is to keep the focus on your goal, dropping attempts to generate confusion, which are, moreover, rather easy to catch.

The strategy you can follow involves the following points:

  • keep the focus on the objective, understanding the ongoing attempt to cloud the water;
  • avoid going back on points on which agreement has already been reached;
  • not accepting changes in order and content of the issues on the agenda;
  • not accepting instrumental digressions, inviting if necessary the counterpart to avoid them;
  • keep the focus on what is happening, paying attention to critical aspects (such as changes in the negotiating team).

Avoiding the swampy terrain of confused negotiations will help you achieve your goals.

The difficulties in implementing and defending against the stratagem are all related to the reality that the world is not black and white, and it is damn difficult to discern truth from lies; confusing situations often prevail, and incurring errors of perception is quite common, because we might think that we are the victim of a stratagem that does not exist.


A final thought

The difficulties in implementing and coping with the stratagem are all related to the fact that the world is not black and white, as well as it is damn difficult to distinguish truth from lies; confusing situations often prevail and incurring errors of perception is quite common, up to wrongly thinking we are falling into a stratagem when we are not.

Finally, I want to draw your attention that you might think that Cloud the water to catch fish is a bit like Loot a burning house.

Actually, there is a substantial difference between the two stratagems: in the former, we are the ones who have generated the conditions to catch fish, while in the latter we merely take advantage of the existing situation.



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