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David & Goliath – Challenging the Myth and the Giants

in Latest News | 11 Feb 2014 | 0 Comments

I have just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s, “David & Goliath – Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants” – ostensibly about what happens when ordinary people confront major disadvantages or giants. While it is possible to find flaws in some sections of the book, the section focussing on the story of David and Goliath does offer some lessons for smaller businesses competing with large companies or corporations.

The traditional take on the story, down the centuries (and indeed explaining how the phrase “David and Goliath” came to be embedded in our language as a metaphor for improbable success against a much larger opponent) is of a miraculous victory by a shepherd boy armed only with a sling, against a giant, seasoned warrior, heavily armed and armoured.

However, as Gladwell points out, armies of that time had three types of warriors: cavalry (on horseback or in chariots); infantry –

foot soldiers carrying swords and shields; and archers and/or slingers (slingshot users).  In skilled hands a slingshot can be lethal at two hundred metres, and was of such importance in ancient warfare that the three kinds of warrior balanced each other, like each option in the game of Rock, Paper, Scissors:  the infantry with their long pikes and armour could stand up to the cavalry; the cavalry could quickly close with slingers; and archers and slingers were deadly against foot soldiers, often weighed down as they were by armour.

Goliath was expecting single combat with a similarly heavily armed and armoured (and given Goliath’s giant form, presumably smaller) infantry opponent. What he got was the one type of warrior who, at a distance, was deadly to infantry, and who was faster and not playing by the rules Goliath had taken for granted.

So we should not always assume that bigger is better, and that small to medium firms cannot compete in tenders with large companies armed with extensive infrastructure, management structures and comprehensive, documented procedures. There are often limitations to the apparent power of large companies, and smaller competitors may have strengths which may not be immediately obvious.

Competitive advantage or differentiation does not necessarily mean bigger or better but, rather, beingdifferent, in a way that represents clear value or benefit to the customer. Potential differentiators include specialisation and expertise; local presence; speed and responsiveness to changing circumstances and customer requirements without the need to run the request through several layers of management; personalised customer service (including a human response rather than the opportunity to “Press 1 for Robot 1; 2 for Robot 2 …..”); and, of course, the potential to offer lower pricing through lower overheads.

As well, lengthy Quality Assurance or Quality Management systems are not always essential. While these may be mandatory for some tenders, for others it is quite possible to follow the David approach with briefer but effective descriptions of Quality Management procedures that focus on your company’s lean, compact management structure, and the owner’s/Director’s total commitment to, and ability to motivate, supervise, monitor and therefore ensure, quality and performance.