Changing the game

Just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest journalistic jewel and I tell you it does not disappoint. Although it doesn’t come close to the Outliers, I am a big fan of all his work and “David and Goliath” shed some interesting insights on the idea of changing the game. The paradigm he challenges this time are the assumptions or the prerequisites for winning. In his latest piece if there IS a pre-requiste is that there is NONE! History has left us with an example of David and Goliath. Malcolm follows up this one with a series of stories where disadvantages have been turned into an advantage. And vice versa! Yes, certain advantages that should have led to sure shot gain have become disadvantages as well.

The one I am going to cover today is the story of Vivek Ranadivé and how he coached his daughter Anjali’s basketball team to change the game. I am not a basketball fan so I don’t fully understand the technical aspects of the game. But the message is quite clear. Here is a someone from India coaching a team who from any physical pre-requisites of the game (tall heights, well built) did not meet them, neither were they particularly skilled at shooting or dribbling. Conventional wisdom would simply write them off. However what he does to change the odds in his favor has some important lessons for all of us.

What he do? The lack of skill and physical endowments were replaced by another skill. He realized as he watched the game that teams did not apply strong defensive pressure until the ball was half way in their court or near the basket. This is the conventional half-court press. Strong defensive play throughout the entire court (which is known as full-court press) was done only for a few minutes at a time. Why? For one it requires a lot of stamina. Two, you didn’t need to play that way if you are good at shooting and dribbling through the court. The rules of the game require that as soon as your opponent scores you take the ball and shoot it to your team mate in under five seconds and within ten seconds you have to get the ball into the opponents court. You fail on either of these two deadlines the ball is conceded to your opponent. What do you do if you are Vivek Ranadivé? If your team does not have the skill to shoot and dribble like the other good teams. You change the game! How? You play full-court press throughout. You put pressure on your opponents by shadowing them aggressively. You don’t focus on shooting and dribbling but forcing your opponent to miss either of the two deadlines. To do that you need stamina and not skill. It’s about legs and not arms. It’s about effort and not ability. To win this way he coached his team like a soccer team. He got them to train hard, to run faster and longer. He built their endurance and strength. The Result – Vivek lopsided the convention of the game. By playing full-court press throughout his team would simply outrun their opponents and win the game!

What is the larger lesson? At a business level this sort of resonates as a blue ocean strategy. Don’t play the game as it is being played. Change the rules. Challenge assumptions. If it HAS been done this way then DON’T do it this way. When Southwest changed the airline industry dynamic, they changed the rules. They outsmarted the competition by changing the competition itself. They didn’t want to compete with other airlines, they went after ground transportation and re-aligned their business model completely to match this premise.

So what is it that you are doing that is an apparent disadvantage for you? How can it become your strength? Goliath, the skillful swordsmen with his heavy metal armor was a king of close quarter combat. But could he handle a rock hurled at him at high speed through a sling before he could even get close enough to unleash his power. With all the weight of the armor he was carrying. He was less agile. When David changed the rules, the advantage Goliath had over his opponent become a disadvantage. And here is lesson number two. Not every advantage is an advantage, but could become a disadvantage. The same way the skills of conventional basketball players became their weakness as the rules were changed. They didn’t have the stamina nor the foresight to compete once Vivek and his team changed the rules.

Like most of my blog posts inspired by books I will cover more insights from this one in future posts as well.  But for now the key take away is simply this: Challenge assumptions. Change the rules. And you WILL change the game!

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