Gladwell on Goliath vs. the ever striving, socially unacceptable David

The New Yorker has a great article by Malcolm Gladwell on how David beats Goliath, largely by working harder and exploiting unanticipated weaknesses in the opponents defense. Examples include basketball, Lawrence of Arabia, Doug Lenat using an expert system, and, of course D vs. G.

The interesting point here, of course, is how Goliath reacts when David substitutes effort for talent and rule-bending (or, rather, rule exploitation) for tradition: By declaring that this is an unacceptable way of playing. During the 1990s, under the truly eccentric coach Egil "Drillo" Olsen" (pictured), the Norwegian national soccer team employed a strategy of putting the whole team in defense, and scoring all their goals on the occasional breakaway, when a long pass would find a single player (usually Jostein Flo) plugging a goal against a surprised defense. This strategy was highly effective (at one point, Norway beat Brazil and was ranked as number 2 in the world by FIFA) but raised the ire of commentators and players everywhere, because they were seen as destroying soccer as a spectator sport. Just like the protagonists in Gladwell’s article, Olsen was an analyzer and a highly controversial character.

Incidentally, after many failures on the field, the Norwegian national team has employed him as a coach again. And they have started winning. Just wait for the accusations to start…

(Come to think of it, the great Swedish Alpine skier Ingemar Stenmark was subject to the same mechanism: He never did downhill races (thinking them crude and dangerous), but won every slalom and grand slalom event on the tour, and thus the overall World Cup title (as well as a total of 7 Olympic medals). This led the powers that be to institute a rule that to be eligible for the overall title, you had to participate in at least one downhill race. Which Stenmark did, in an upright position like a Sunday skier. He finished dead last, and, of course, took the overall title. Again.)

Think about your own industry – what are the equivalent to Olsen strategy there? I am sure it involves something socially unacceptable which will allow the weakest player to win. May you find it before someone else does…

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