The race is not always won by the swiftest.  The battle is not always won by the strongest.” – Ecclessiastes

I often get a pile of coveted books for Christmas and this year it was almost entirely books. One of the top on my reading list is Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants” (and I am a particular fan of misfits this time of year). If Professor Lawrence Freedman’s Sunday Times piece “Underdogs, take heart, there is a key to victory” (prompted by Gladwell’s book launch) is any indication, the book should be chock full of material on embracing failure…

  • For the underdog, the decisive battle can appear a much better bet, for over the course of a long drawn-out conflict, underlying weakness will make itself felt…A quick, decisive victory requires catching the opponent by surprise.  This is why underdogs so often have to resort to deception and look for a cunning plan.  The idea of compensating for weakness by outsmarting opponents, posing a superior intelligence against the boring, ponderous, muscle-bound approach of the reliably strong was the approach Homer celebrated in Odysseus.”

Freeman differentiates “strategy” from a “plan” along the same lines as Scott Adams’ “system” and “goals” distinction.  He describes strategy as “a key feature of strategy is independent decision making [since…] implementation depends on others.”  I think Freeman is a bit off base.  I think his is describing a “good system” where a key feature of the system is that the interdependent parts work well together.  But a “strategy” as a subset instance of a system is defined by something else.  Something which plays to Gladwell’s “underdog” insight.

I always say “The key thing to articulating strategy is to start your sentences with ‘the key thing’…”  It is that laser sharp, fulcrum positioned focus that the underdog requires to be successful.  The underdog can’t take out all of the pillars, so it has to identify the one pillar with the greatest structural vulnerability.  The Achilles Heel as Homer illustrated it. So, yes David needs a strategy to beat Goliath, but not the type that Freeman is describing.