Saturday, May 09, 2009

Gladwell: Relentless effort trumps skill, and underdogs win more than you think

One of the best ways to win against someone who superior skills is with relentless effort.

That's how underdogs win: they take the fight to their opponent in a socially unacceptable way to trump their opponent's superiority.

Malcolm Gladwell has a good feature in the New Yorker on this topic.

Here is a great slice of his story:

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.”

Some lessons for politics and advocacy: relentless effort for the underdogs is a requirement to win. And when the other side looks strongest, don't play by those rules.