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How often do underdogs succeed?

Posted: December 24, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Do you think the answer is rarely, about 30 percent of the time, or is it 60 percent of the time? Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘David & Goliath’ answers this very question, providing a fascinating examination of the advantages to be found in disadvantage.

There are many stories in the business press about the disadvantages faced by companies in the Australian food industry so it’s interesting to take a look at Gladwell’s argument: there are advantages based on material resources (brand, number of stores, supply chain excellence etc) but there are also advantages that have to do with the absence of resources.

He cites the work of political scientist Arreguin-Toft who investigated what happens in wars between the strong and the weak when the weak side uses unconventional tactics. The results were that the weaker side wins 63.6 percent of the time if they refuse to fight the way the bigger sized opponent is used to fighting.

We think the underdog has no advantage but what if having lots of people, money and other resources slows down decision making, keeps people stuck in habitual ways of doing things and makes your company less agile? Smaller companies with smart people who are able to be more flexible, innovative and responsive to local conditions have real advantages that they may not realise exist.

Gladwell makes the case that this is a very difficult lesson for people to learn, that people have rigid and limited definitions of what constitutes an advantage. He says “we think of things as helpful that actually aren’t and think of other things as unhelpful that in reality leave us stronger and wiser.”

So when you think the deck is stacked against you, that the other side has all the power and all the advantages, put your phone down, take some time out and think again. There may be an unconventional approach that might make all the difference. And most importantly, ask yourself what does it take for me, and the people who work for and with me, to be the ones who don’t accept the conventional order of things as a given.

Why was David willing to put himself in a fight with Goliath in the first place? Because he knew he had some advantages.