Issue 30

Sun Tzu's Art of War and Information Era

Liviu Ştefăniţă Baiu
Senior Business Consultant


This article is the second related to Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and adds more arguments to my personal belief that the 2500 year military treatise is a guidebook for the nowadays role of Product Owner.


As described in the previous article (Ancient advices for a Product Owner – TSM Issue 29), the PO and the General from Sun Tzu’s Art of War are very similar in regard to their responsibilities and characteristics. In this article I will try to expand the list of similarities between these roles and present the way that Sun Tzu treated the importance of information for the general and how this applies to the PO role nowadays.

In Sun Tzu’s Art of War, 13th Chapter (Employment of Secret Agents) is dedicated to secret agents and knowledgeabout the enemy army and moves. The goal of the war is to obtain a quick victory, and in order to do that, the general should constantly be informed of and adjust his strategy based on enemy strength, position, and maneuvers. A general should have a strong intelligence force in order to obtain information about these aspects.

Nowadays, a PO must be constantly informed about the market trends, consumer behavior, and other similar products on the market. He should position the product he owns on the market, and deliver value through its functionalities, value that can ultimately be converted to profit for the organization the product is created for.

In addition to the importance of information for obtaining victory, Sun Tzu describes its influence on the army’s morale and the kingdom’s treasury, because costs for a long campaign are affecting the kingdom’s economy. These factors are very important for the quality of a general. In this respect, a successful PO must care for his Scrum Team’s morale and for the budget of the product.


Foreknowledge - knowledge about something before it happens. [Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English 1987]

3. Now the reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they move and their achievements surpass those of ordinary men is foreknowledge.

4. What is called ‘foreknowledge’ cannot be elicited from spirits, nor from gods, nor by analogy with past events, nor from calculations. It must be obtained from men who know the enemy situation.’

The above quote is relevant for the fact that a general must have, at all times, valid information about the enemy maneuvers and location, as well as about its plans. It also underlines that relevant information cannot be obtained only from trustful and up-to-date sources.

In the information world we’re living, it is obvious that a PO should be connected to the market the future product will be positioned on, and the decisions he makes about the product features must be made based on valid information about the changes in the environment for the future product.

The planning activities that a PO and the Scrum Team perform during the development of the product must be based on information, and if the information is outdated or inaccurate then the project success is jeopardized or even compromised. Thus, having the information from trusted and reliable sources is a crucial aspect of a project success and, implicitly of a successful PO.

Information sources

Sun Tzu describes five types of secret agents that can be used by a general:

These types are corresponding to different types of information that can be obtained and used by the general, such as:

We observe that these types of information are matching the base for PO decisions – market researches describe the current status, the trends and the technologies. Nowadays all software companies have confidentiality agreements with their employees – that’s the legal form of counterintelligence.

The PO is not responsible for setting up the tools and processes for gathering data, for these there is the organization and its specialized departments, or even external sources of data (consulting companies, data reporting companies, and so on). Nevertheless, the PO must request them and take them into account in his project related decisions and planning activities.

The importance of secret agents, thus information, is emphasized by Sun Tzu: ’13. He who is not sage and wise, humane and just, cannot use secret agents.' and ’...there is no place where espionage is not used’.

Development costs and Information costs

Sun Tzu describes the way that the costs of a campaign were calculated both for maintaining the army in a good shape for the battle but also for maintaining the home economy safe: ‘1. Now when an army of one hundred thousand is raised on a distant campaign, the expenses borne by the people together with disbursements of the treasury will amount to a thousand of gold pieces daily. There will be continuous commotion both at home and abroad, people will be exhausted by the requirements of transport, and the affairs of seven hundred thousand households will be disrupted.’ It’s important to mention that the social organization in ancient China had family at its base, and eight families comprised a community. If one family sent a man to war, the rest of the community should have contributed to support that family. That’s how the calculation was made in the above quote.

It is easy to see that a long campaign has a negative influence on the people and the home economy, and why the costs of intelligence are affordable if they are justified by reducing the period of war.

The PO should always take into account the costs for developing the product and the value of each Sprint’s deliverable. The backlog items that bring the most value to the product should always be the ones that are ready to be developed by the team. The priority should be assigned by the PO based on informed decisions.


We all know that information as well as delivering a software product includes an amount of costs. The success of a SCRUM project is depending on the information that the PO has and on the way he uses the information on the decisions he or she makes about the backlog and the stories that are worked on by the development team.

The PO must also gather information from all the stakeholders and from the market in order to be able to make decisions and present their benefits to the project sponsors.

Sun Tzu’s Art of War proves to be a valuable source of information for a modern PO, as well as a reliable source of learning about how important it is to address all the aspects of a project – in this case information and costs, in order to be successful.






  • Accenture
  • BT Code Crafters
  • Accesa
  • Bosch
  • Betfair
  • MHP
  • BoatyardX
  • .msg systems
  • Yardi
  • P3 group
  • Ing Hubs
  • Colors in projects