Break the rules! How David beats Goliath

May 7, 2009


Another thought provoking article from Malcolm Gladwell – how can you be completely outgunned, outmatched and outnumbered and still win?

If you are willing to break with the unwritten rules of your business, your sport or even your social circles, you can beat opponents who are ten times more powerful than you. 

David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. 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.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. 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, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.

However, taking a different path is usually incredibly hard work. Even worse, you may be ostracised, as those unwritten rules are also those which bind people together.

The price that the outsider pays for being so heedless of custom is, of course, the disapproval of the insider. Why did the Ivy League schools of the nineteen-twenties limit the admission of Jewish immigrants? Because they were the establishment and the Jews were the insurgents, scrambling and pressing and playing by immigrant rules that must have seemed to the Wasp élite of the time to be socially horrifying. “Their accomplishment is well over a hundred per cent of their ability on account of their tremendous energy and ambition,” the dean of Columbia College said of the insurgents from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the Lower East Side. He wasn’t being complimentary. Goliath does not simply dwarf David. He brings the full force of social convention against him; he has contempt for David.

In design, it’s always worth knowing the difference between a real barrier and one that so many people take for granted that it hasn’t been challenged. Take this example from the blog of Josh Kopelman (First Round Capital) on how Paypal managed to get acquired by eBay after beating their own payment service, Billpoint:

eBay understood everything that was needed to build a great payments product.  They were just unable to do so given the risks involved.  Specifically, I believe that PayPal had a better product than Billpoint because they were willing/able to take risks that Billpoint/eBay was not.  For example, when PayPal first launched, it was pretty clear that their product violated the operating rules for Visa, Mastercard and American Express — and violated banking regulations is more than 40 different states.

Man made rules are ripe for picking apart. Sometimes, the most important thing is knowing when to cast them aside.


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