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.