how davids beat goliaths: substitute effort for ability

This recent essay by Malcolm Gladwell, for the New Yorker, looks at the surprising rise of a junior girls basketball team to national prominence, and finds lessons about innovation in their experiences and in the strategies of Lawrence of Arabia.

Gladwell examines a coach’s unorthodox use of the full-court press – unorthodox that is in a game played by 12 yr old girls – as a great leveler. Suddenly and convincingly, David is the new boss, of Goliath. By out-maneuvering taller and more talented opponents – at two deadlines – they are able to overcome social conventions of the game and disrupt the balance of power.

Because he grew up in India – and is perfectly alien to basketball – coach Vivek Ranadivé must first have the curiosity to make this observation (before he can innovate):

“He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent’s attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadivé thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?”

And so with this change of perspective Coach Ranadivé decides to operate according to two principles:

1) Speak calmly and softly, and convince the girls of the wisdom of his approach with appeals to reason and common sense.

2) Play all 94′ of the court. Play it all game.

Gladwell devotes most of his energy and analysis to the latter principle, to the exclusion of the first one’s significance in underwriting his team’s success. But we notice later on the story how quickly a team can collapse when an opponent’s coach start’s yelling at his disoriented team.

Gladwell introduces the thinking of Ivan Arreguín-Toft to support his analysis, which is how we get from 12 yr old blond girls, to bedouins fighting in the desert.

Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time…

…What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win [!]

Shifting my odds from 1 in 3, to 2 in 3, ammounts to 100% return on innovation. And all from the application of an unconventional strategy. This raises curious and troubling questions for david’s and goliaths alike, especially when their instincts lead them to garden-variety strategies.

“…The eighteenth-century general Maurice de Saxe famously said that the art of war was about legs, not arms…”

Maybe their is something more to the metaphors that de Saxe uses in this re-framing? Perhaps corporations that can cover more ground, than lift more weight, will become the new goliaths of the future?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “how davids beat goliaths: substitute effort for ability

  1. Greg Fowler

    My immediate reaction to this is to ask the question: what rules am I unaware that I am playing by? Who has defined them? And how do I extract myself from these sorts of implicit constructions?

    In essence, how do I make myself an outsider in my own field of expertise?

    I am interested in techniques that people use to reorient their perspective. The “stranger in a strange land” perspective detailed in this article is a good one (though in this case it was naturally occurring, it can be a powerful contrivance). The power of the naive question!

    It occurs to me that one thing that is missing in many institutions is a *systemic* way of allowing naive questions to happen. Generally, knowledge and certainty are valued (especially in a shareholder driven company). In this case, it comes down an individual’s willingness to appear naive in order to view a situation anew.

    • michaeldavisburchat

      Well put, Greg.

      But rather than “allowing naive questions to happen” I am interested in actively promoting their occurrence. In fairness, my guess is, that was what you meant by, a “systemic way of” working, thinking, or the like…

      Your immediate reactions:

      1) what rules am I unaware that I am playing by?
      2) Who has defined them?
      3) And how do I extract myself from these sorts of implicit constructions?

      suggest an analytical framework for doing just that.

      But it won’t always be practical or useful to be asking these questions. Perhaps an on-off switch is needed as well. When do we best invoke them? When do we best park them?

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