What the Chinese junk teaches us about strategic agility

During the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), the Chinese were incredible innovators in ship-building. In the 11th-12th Century, the junk emerged as a shining example of the naval innovations for which the Chinese were famous. The word “junk” is a Portuguese corruption of the original Chinese word chuan or the Malay word djong which mean ‘boat’.

Sailing was very rough in the South China Sea—the strong headwinds, the big waves, and the occasional typhoons made life very difficult for a sailboat. To account for this, the Chinese junk incorporated three remarkable innovations for its time.

1. Fault tolerance

The Chinese introduced bulkheads—8 to 13 watertight partitions that ran from the bottom of the boat up to the deck. These bulkheads ensured that damage to the hull of the ship would not skink the ship—flooding caused by the damage was restricted to one portion of the ship because the bulkheads would prevent the water from flooding the entire ship and sinking it.

2. Flexibility

The Chinese did away with the sharp keel that was in vogue–the characteristic pointed bottom of the boat. Instead, they gave the junk a flat-bottomed keel. As a result, the junk could navigate both shallow and deep waters.

3. Agility

The winds on the South China Sea  were strong, but fickle. The boat’s sail would have to be constantly raised and lowered. The junk introduced the concept of multiple sails that would face in different directions, but more importantly, these were made from bamboo and designed like venetian blinds that could be opened and closed with the mere pulling of strings. The multiple bamboo blind sails made the junk tremendously maneuverable.

The sailors on the junk found that the junk allowed them incredible maneuverability–they could steer the flat-bottomed ship rapidly with the winds using the blind-like sails.

At the same time, the sailors discovered that the ship was at the mercy of the winds–they could not control the direction of the ship.

The most important lesson: Strategic Agility

And then, the Chinese introduced the junk’s most important innovation—the stern-post rudder. Several centuries before it came into use in the West. The rudder was also designed in a way that allowed the sailors the ability to adjust its height in accordance with the depth of the water. But the main contribution of the stern-ppst rudder was in directing the ship–it enabled the sailors to steer the large ship in the particular direction they wanted to go.

The Chinese junk offers important lessons for nimbleness and agility. While we may have the ability to quickly adjust to competitive forces and market factors, if we are not able to steer the company in the direction we want, we will be blown in whichever way the business environment takes us.

The Chinese junk thus teaches us the difference between agility and strategic agility.

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