Malcolm Gladwell tells stories with very revealing and powerful lessons, particularly for business owners. His book, David and Goliath, which he subtitled “underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants,” shares valuable stories and observations. His predominant message is that our instinctive reaction to apparent advantages and disadvantages is often wrong and that great competitive power and innovation can be unleashed by how we approach them.
He started with the story of a software executive who decided to coach his 12-year-old daughter’s basketball team. He had no experience with the sport, as he grew up in India, but he was keenly observant and brutally objective. He could see that: 1) The team was literally terrible, lacking any skills or accuracy of any kind. 2) The level of training needed would have been extensive and would not provide the immediate results needed for the season.
While the team was a clear underdog versus all the other teams, he applied the mind-set and the will to change this imbalance:
Why let our opponents assert their advantages?
Let’s be unconventional and different with our disadvantages.
So, he proceeded to teach his daughter’s team not be passive and not to accept their fate. He coached them to do a full court press—all the time! They started winning. True, many were 6-0 scores, but they started winning against substantially better teams. The coach was being denounced by rivals, accused of not “playing in the spirit of the game,” but he took the criticism and the social pressure and led his mediocre team to the playoffs of the National Junior Basketball League.
The coach took his apparent disadvantage and turned it into a competitive advantage. It reminds you of the Oakland A’s coach, Billy Beane, as chronicled in the book and movie Moneyball, who similarly was handed a poor hand—losing three top players and having one of the smallest payrolls in the league to build with—and he had to use what he had and reworked the way the game was being managed and coached to great success. The subtitle of the Michael Lewis book was "the art of winning an unfair game."
Malcolm went on to report that, in his research of top successful entrepreneurs, he found a surprisingly large group of them that were dyslexic. In his interviews, he uncovered similar childhood stories of struggles and challenges that they had to overcome. His conclusion was that they were successful, not in spite of their disability, but because of it. Success came to them from learning to deal with their disability. They gained valuable skills in how to deal with failure and not see it as a final result or allow it to phase them; in building strong communication skills to work around the obstacles before them; in knowing how to build alliances and support networks; and in the need for delegation, which became second nature to them. And any semblance of egotism was “beaten out of them,” so to speak. This further supports Malcolm’s point of how strength and competitive advantage can come from a disadvantage by going deeper and applying a mind-set of learning and discovering or creating benefits from it.
In his historical research of the David and Goliath legend, he revealed many details of the story that further demonstrated that there may be inherent weaknesses in an apparent advantage and inherent strengths in an apparent disadvantage. On the surface, a fight between a giant armor-clad warrior and a thin boy with a rock seems to paint the picture of wide disparity. In reality, the slow-moving Goliath was weighed down with armor, while the young, nimble David was armed with a deadly weapon capable of high accuracy at a great distance. David focused on the weaknesses that sprang from his opponents advantages and made the best of his disadvantages to win the battle. Malcolm emphasizes that this is a perspective or approach that all small business owners need in order to compete in a world of constant change and growing competition.
Separately from Malcolm's book, it is important to note that there also is a branch of innovation coming from emerging countries that reinforces the mind-set of creating new solutions and business growth with limited resources and having to work in adverse circumstances. This approach has been termed jugaad or “frugal” innovation. Jugaad is a Hindu word that describes a form of ingenuity that allows one to improvise and to cheaply and quickly cobble a solution together from the materials you have at hand. It is based on six operating principles: seek opportunity in adversity, do more with less, think and act flexibly, keep everything about the business simple, tap the margins of society for employees and customers, and follow your heart. Read the following Strategy+Business article in our Innovation Library to learn more about this approach: "What the West Can Learn From Jugaad." I am also adding a video interview of Navi Radjou to our video gallery. He is the author of Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth and 2013 Thinkers50 Innovation Award winner, who will further explain and illustrate jugaad innovation.