by Dennis Yang

Filed Under:
rules, underdogs

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.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    Yeebok (profile), May 8th, 2009 @ 7:25pm

    Interesting piece

    Nice story, and a little out of the normal breadth of techdirt stories, but this is good - it shows an underdog doing things differently to win, and then show an instance where underdogs worked well and took down the incumbents.

    Do I get to go "FIRST!!!" as well .. oh this site's a bit too mature for that ;)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    random, May 8th, 2009 @ 11:09pm

    Awesome and well written. This doesn't just apply to sports and business model but this concept can apply to anyone who can think of just 1 brilliant idea to put themselves ahead of the competition. This can apply to the average job seeker or even to corporate execs.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Kiba, May 9th, 2009 @ 1:26am


    Anybody can have a brilliant idea but execution is paramount.

    If the basketball team did not put in the effort they did, they wouldn't have gotten to the national championship even if they did use unconventional full bench press all the the time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 9th, 2009 @ 5:11am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 9th, 2009 @ 6:51am

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

    True, but it was probably the first, and last, time he saw one used with such skill and grace. ;)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    thomas, May 9th, 2009 @ 6:52am

    I heard this before

    This sounds almost exactly what I heard Malcolm Gladwell speak about at WES09 this week!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 9th, 2009 @ 7:44am


    Actually, it does apply to the sports model, for example the football team in this story does not punt, they are also state champions.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    stinson (profile), May 9th, 2009 @ 7:59am

    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!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 9th, 2009 @ 10:39am

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

    Definitely the last time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 9th, 2009 @ 10:42am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Jake, May 9th, 2009 @ 3:52pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    AZ, May 9th, 2009 @ 4:52pm

    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
    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Raybone, May 9th, 2009 @ 10:40pm


    Gooood write-up, Dennis. Stick around. I totally agree with Yeebok

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    acruxksa, May 9th, 2009 @ 10:51pm


    Insightful and thought provoking. Two thumbs up!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 10th, 2009 @ 10:51am

    Reminds me of playing chess with my younger brother. (I used to win. And then he changed the rules of the game;) )

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, May 11th, 2009 @ 12:30am

    Two Words: Asymmetric Warfare

    Or, you don’t have to be a good guy to win.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    bob, May 11th, 2009 @ 1:19pm

    david vs goliath

    Somebody ought to see if the 12 year bold girls enjoyed the season and what national championship did they win? Another indicator of how sucessful the coach was how maNY ARE PLAYING AT THE HIGH SCHOOL LEVEL.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Grant Edgewood, Jun 8th, 2009 @ 6:17am


    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...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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