Underdogs Win By Changing The Rules

from the art-of-war dept

If David and Goliath were to have fought today, we would probably find Congress holding a hearing about why the the “sling” was an unfair advantage, and that future sling users would need to stand within swords reach of their opponents. But, being such an adept warrior, how is it possible that Goliath never foresaw the advent of the sling? In a particularly inspirational piece in the New Yorker, entitled Annals of Innovation: How David Beats Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell explores just how underdogs topple giants. Gladwell follows a basketball team of 12-year-old girls, coached by TIBCO founder Vivek Ranadivè, as they encounter teams whose members are taller and more skillful than they are. But, by employing the full-court press for the whole game, an unconventional tactic that confuses and exhausts teams that are used to more traditional play, they started to win games. By changing the way that the game was played to tailor to their own strengths (and by training them to exploit these unique strengths), Ranadivè was not just winning games, but dominating other teams so much as to ultimately take his team to the national championships.

What was perhaps most fascinating in the article was the research conducted by political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft. Arreguin-Toft looked at every war in the past two hundred years and found that when the weaker combatants changed the rules, their win percentage went from 28.5% to 63.6%. That’s an astounding figure.

When applied to the business world, it reveals a vast field of opportunity for entrepreneurs, who are, by definition, scrappy upstarts changing the rules to get ahead. People often insist that big companies can simply steal the ideas of the new companies that aren’t “protected.” In reality, those ideas are oftentimes so game-changing, that established companies scoff at them. And then, after it is evident that they have been left behind, they angrily complain of unfairness, when in reality, the opportunity was always there, they just chose to rest on their laurels. In the past few years, Google has helped tear down the conventional advertising wisdom that ad spending is inherently wasteful, as reflected in John Wanamaker’s famous statement: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” By building tools that allow advertisers to closely track and monitor the performance of their ad budgets down to the penny, Google has drawn the ire of traditional newspapers, who have seen their print ad market shrink as they look for a way to compete in this new, ROI-driven world that Google has defined. Similarly, when Craigslist first started, its audience paled in comparison to that of the newspapers. By offering a simple, bare-bones service that only charged for certain classified ads, it too changed the game and now thrives in the face of the struggling newspapers.

That said, in today’s world, Google and Craigslist have become the Goliaths, and are vulnerable to the same rule changing tactics that they employed to get to where they are today. So, newspapers, perhaps instead of trying to have Congress officially un-change the rules and legislate your businesses back to health, maybe it’s time for your own style of a full-court press and figure out how to innovate and change the rules yourself. That said, history tells us that incumbents have a very difficult time breaking free from their own rules, so my money would be on an upstart that’s brewing in someone’s garage right now.

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Comments on “Underdogs Win By Changing The Rules”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Football had an even better story a few years back.


This was a high-speed misdirection offense that allowed teams to compete with schools that played traditional smashmouth football. This is very popular in high school. You get the biggest kids and push the other team for 60 minutes.

A-11 turned it completely around. So what happened? They changed the rules because the incumbent coaches didn’t want to adjust.

Anonymous Coward says:

David vs. Goliath is not about the invention of the sling...

“But, being such an adept warrior, how is it possible that Goliath never foresaw the advent of the sling?”

I know you’re just using a metaphor, but the day Goliath died is not the day the first time Goliath heard of a sling.

stinson (profile) says:

Reminds me of Army of Davids

This analogy reminded me of a book I read about four years ago called An Army of Davids by UT law professor Glenn Reynolds. Very fascinating book, with inspiring examples of how developments in the sophistication of technology, paired with the lowering cost barrier, is an integral part of the change in the marketplace across multiple industries in this information age.

Great thought provoking post!

Jake says:

Actually, the analogy does rather break down when you consider what might have happened if Goliath had worn his helmet instead of falling prey to hubris.

Allow me to use a slightly different analogy. A new general store opens in a town that’s only ever had one such business before, and starts offering a better service.
Now, the old store owner’s been doing things the same way for so long that he doesn’t know how to do anything except what he’s always done, so what can he do? He can try and emulate the newcomers, but that’s complicated and expensive and might not work. He doesn’t want to retire. So what can he do that lets him carry on doing things the way he’s always done and still make money?
Simple. He can break into the new store one night with a can of petrol and a box of matches and burn it down. Maybe the townspeople will mutter and the new store owner will rant and rave and the sheriff will ask some pointed questions, but what can they do? There’s only one general store in town, and if they put the owner in jail they won’t have anywhere in town to buy groceries.

I agree it’s immoral, selfish and intellectually lazy, and I freely acknowledge that the above scenario is a gross over-simplification. But I’ll bet you could hardly throw a rock on Wall Street or Hollywood Boulevard and fail to hit four guys who think that way.

AZ says:

The Art of War

Sun Tzu would be proud, his teachings are taught worldwide and are arguably the definitive work on military strategies and tactics.

“Sun Tzu… taught that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through a to-do list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions.” -Wikipedia

Wednesday, C-Span aired the Communications, Technology, and the Internet Senate Committee’s
Future of Journalism and Newspapers hearings. It was fascinating to watch.

With the following attendants:
John Kerry, U.S. Senator
Benjamin Cardin, U.S. Senator
Steve Coll, Managing Editor Washington Post
Arianna Huffington, Co-Founder Huffingtonpost.com
Alberto Ibarguen, President and CEO Knight Foundation
Marissa Mayer, Vice President Google, Inc.
James Moroney, CEO Dallas Morning News
David Simon, Former Reporter Baltimore Sun

James Moroney and David Simon argued that a particular newspaper’s news reporting holds an intellectual property right that needs to be protected. They argued to permit anti-trust rules to be suspended to allow newspapers to talk openly about putting up Internet barriers to their content as a collective. Simon even referred to the news reported by a specific newspaper as copy write protected. That scared me. How do you copywrite public informaton?

Steve Coll argued that the public good should take persistence over saving newspapers. Something that Sen. Kerry repeated in his closing statement.

Bottom line: the public good must prevail over the interests of keeping particular newspapers in business.

Grant Edgewood says:


Great article… Suggest you also take a look at “Innovation for Underdogs” by Pensak and Licorish. It clarifies a lot of how you can be innovative and suggests ways of giving “permission” to children and colleagues to think more broadly and then get support for moving their ideas forward.

A very pleasant and stimulating read…

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