Published on: May 21, 2009Now available on iTunes…
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I mentioned the other day in the course of doing a commentary that there is “nothing wrong with being an underdog in a dog fight…as long as you bring different weapons and expectations to the battle.”
The comment, I must confess, was hardly original … and was prompted by a terrific piece by author Malcolm Gladwell that I read in the May 11 edition of The New Yorker.
Gladwell, the author of such books as “Outliers” and “The Tipping Point,” writes about the world of the underdog and uses a wide variety of examples – from a basketball team made up of 12-year-old girls with little experience, to Lawrence of Arabia, to the Biblical story of David and Goliath – to illustrate a central and compelling point about the ability of underdogs to prevail. When the “Davids” in almost any venue do battle with “Goliaths” and play by the orthodox rules set by “Goliath” and his peers, “Goliath” wins more than seventy percent of the time.
But when the “Davids” challenge traditional thinking and use unconventional approaches to whatever the battle happens to be, the odds of their success almost triple, and they find themselves to be successful almost two-thirds of the time.
And why, in the case of the girls’ basketball team, they were able to defeat – mystify, really – teams with far greater talent and experience.
Gladwell writes: “Insurgents work harder than Goliath. But their other advantage is that they will do what is ‘socially horrifying’ – they will challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought. All the things that distinguish the ideal basketball player are acts of skill and coördination. When the game becomes about effort over ability, it becomes unrecognizable - a shocking mixture of broken plays and flailing limbs and usually competent players panicking and throwing the ball out of bounds. You have to be outside the establishment—a foreigner new to the game or a skinny kid from New York at the end of the bench—to have the audacity to play it that way … We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability … because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coördination.”
There is a cost of being an insurgent, of course. You have to be willing to be an outsider in what generally is a mainstream game. You have to be able to revel in the challenge to orthodoxy … and be willing to put in the relentless effort necessary, which is usually more than the other guy is willing to do.
There are plenty of examples in business of companies that challenged the traditional way of doing things, were labeled as being outcasts, but ended up succeeding in the long run. Walmart may be the best example…it simply didn’t accept that the business practices used by its competition were the best practices, and reinvented the model until now pretty much everybody else is trying to catch up. It is fair to suggest, I think, that the reason that so many companies have trouble competing with Walmart is that they think not like insurgents, but like members of the establishment…which hampers their ability to succeed.
My friend Glen Terbeek, who has been challenging business models and conventional wisdom as long as I’ve known him, read this piece and said something really smart (as he always does), that “actually, the weak are really strong since they are not encumbered with old practices, large organizations, inappropriate measurements, etc. Size is not the same as strength. That is why most of the really new ideas start from outside, and often smaller startups.”
The challenge that most businesses have is to think from the outside.
I cannot recommend this article to you strongly enough. It is entitled “Annals of Innovation: How David Beats Goliath,” and is by Malcolm Gladwell. You can find it online in the archives section of The New Yorker…and if it doesn’t help you shape your competitive thinking, then you aren’t reading it closely enough.
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