David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants [Speed Summary]

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How do new brands, innovators and startups enter new markets dominated by powerful market leaders – and win? In David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell reveals how, distilling a synthesis of psychology, behavioural economics and sociology into a neat three-point plan.

  1. Look for Weaknesses in Market Leader Strengths
  2. Find Strengths in your own Weaknesses
  3. Play Dirty

Look for Weaknesses in Market Leader Strengths

First, look beyond the strength in strengths to see hidden weaknesses. Sure, Goliath was big, strong and heavily armoured, but the same size, armour and strength made him slow. The speed of David’s slingshot propelling stones at 34 metres per second ensured his victory. Very often, Gladwell illustrates, our apparent strengths are in fact the sources of our critical weaknesses.

Take how the asymmetrical might of British Army fuelled rather than quelled Republican resistance in Ireland in the 1970s. Or how the full force of Californian courts with the “Three Strikes” policy backfired spectacularly. Or how the relentless firepower of the Luftwaffe created rather than crushed the spirit of Londoners in the 1940s. Or how unbridled police power and force enhanced rather than eroded the Civil Rights movement in the US.

The key point is that in a Gladwell SWOT analysis – strengths are weaknesses and vice vera. So to take on a powerful market leader and win, look for unintended consequences of their apparent strengths – and attack there.

Find Strengths in your own Weaknesses

Second, identify strengths you didn’t know you had because you assumed they were weaknesses. Coining the term “desirable difficulties”, Gladwell’s analogy is dyslexia – a handicapping weakness – but also a hidden source of strength. The inability to read can trigger compensatory mechanisms such as an acute capacity to listen, enhanced memory and speaking prowess. Childhood tragedy, including losing a parent can also forge compensatory mechanisms that set you up for future success.

So how does your brand compensate for its weaknesses – could these be a source of strength to take on a Goliath? And just as dyslexics may have had to deal with repeated failure early on in life, the result is that successful dyslexics – of which their are many in business – become less risk-averse and more tenacious in their capacity to get back up and try again. You may not be as big as Goliath, but you may have more grit, courage and tenacity to seize market opportunities.

So point two of Gladwell’s three point plan for new brands, innovators and startups is to find hidden strengths – ‘desirable difficulties’ – in your weaknesses, and use these to take on the market leader.

Play Dirty

Now, onto controversial point 3 – Play Dirty. Never take on the market leader on their own terms – you will be squashed. Instead, think differently and play by your own rules, not those of the market leader. Use a metaphorical slingshot to attack the Achilles Heel of a sword-wielding giant and the odds will be in your favour. In asymmetrical warfare, guerrilla tactics from a small outnumbered and underpowered unit shift the chances of victory from 38.5% to 63.6%. To illustrate, Gladwell shows how small, average amateur female basketball team trounced superior adversaries time and again by playing dirty on the edge of rules, through guerrilla style full-court defence. It caused outrage, but it worked.

Gladwell also reminds us that behind many business success stories you’ll find someone who was – and remains – willing to play dirty. Looking at the personality profile (OCEAN – openness-conscientiousness-extraversion-agreeableness-neuroticism) of movers and shakers in business, you’ll see three common traits. First, openness to new experiences – as a source of inspiration and ideas. Second, conscientiousness – everybody who ever has taken a shower has had a good idea, what counts is the perseverance to make it real. Thirdly, a willingness to be disagreeable to others when necessary – to run roughshod over sensibilities, protocols and etiquette – and do what’s necessary to get the job done. Willingness to play dirty is a prerequisite to success.

So there you have it. A three-point plan for innovators, new brands and startups for taking on Goliath brands – and winning: Look for Weaknesses in Market Leader Strengths, Find Strengths in your own Weaknesses, and Play Dirty. To support his plan, Gladwell urges every David to learn about the non-linear “inverted U” nature of strengths and outcomes. Sure, strengths build your adversary up and indeed make them stronger, but only to a point when the same strengths can backfire through the force of unintended consequences. Take for example, the “strength” of having wealthy parents on your own success. More parental wealth helps, but only up to a point, where it interferes with your ability to acquire the skills of perseverance and self-reliance. Or take the strength of a good school with good teacher-pupil ratios. Smaller classes are better, but only up to a point – around 15 – at which point diversity and student interaction falls to dysfunctional levels.

Strengths when overdeveloped or overplayed become weaknesses. And that is the valuable insight that allowed David to slay Goliath, and that will allow you to take on the market leader and win.

The BG Take

If Gladwell’s Outliers was about how success results more from timing and training than talent (10,000 hour rule), then David & Goliath is about how apparent weakness can sometimes be a source of strength and vice versa. It’s a useful insight for innovators looking to enter markets dominated by a powerful market leader.

Whilst the counter-intuitive message of David and Goliath perhaps doesn’t have the immediately applicable neatness to marketing of The Tipping Point, Outliers or Blink, it’s a great read – and the central insights are practical and useful. And while Gladwell has been accused of cherry picking science to suit his Rocky-style uplifting story of underdog victories, the idea that market leaders are not as strong as they seem, and underdogs are not as weak as they appear is essential market wisdom.


Paul Marsden

All stories by: Paul Marsden
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