Is It Time For An Unconventional Strategy?

I just read a very interesting article in The New Yorker called How David Beats Goliath. It looks at how underdogs (from basketball teams to Lawrence Of Arabia) can overcome a seemingly insurmountable enemy. Not surprisingly, I was drawn to the data that was mentioned in the article.

The article weaves in findings from research that examined 202 lopsided wars over the last 200 years. I used the data to create this graphic:

Underdogs Win Wars With Unconventional Strategies

My take: Wow! If this data is accurate, then it shows that underdogs have dramatically shifted their odds by changing the approach to battle. Here are a few lessons that companies can learn from this article:

  • Don’t attack a strong competitor head-on. Instead of playing the normal style of basketball against a highly talented UMass basketball team (lead by Dr. J), Fordham University used a full-court press to beat the heavily favored Redmen in 1971. Lesson: Find places where your competitors aren’t strong or aren’t prepared.
  • Take advantage of “conventional wisdom.” While combat was traditionally done with a sword, David recognized that he could not beat Goliath with that approach — so he used a sling and some stones. Lesson: You can often times anticipate how competitors will act or react.
  • Play to your strengths. When Lawrence of Arabia was charged with ovetaking the Turks, he took advantage of the strengths of his untrained, Bedouin fighters — endurance, knowledge of the country, and courage. He led them on a 600 mile loop to attack the Turks from an unprotected flank. This group of several hundred nomads ended up killing or capturing 1,200 Turks and lost only two men. Lesson: Develop a strategy that uses your strengths.

The bottom line: Davids can absolutely beat Goliaths

Written by 

I am an experience management transformist, helping organizations improve business results by engaging the hearts and minds of their customers, employees, and partners. My "job" is Head of the Qualtrics XM Institute. The Institute is still being established, but our goal is to help organizations around the world thrive by mastering Experience Management (XM). As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. Prior to joining Qualtrics, I was managing partner of Temkin Group (leading CX research, advisory, and training firm), co-founder and chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (, and a VP at Forrester Research. I'm a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Check out my LinkedIn profile:

4 thoughts on “Is It Time For An Unconventional Strategy?”

  1. Great post Bruce. I often use the term “changing the game”, but it’s dead-on with your post. Smaller companies can compete with the larger ones, but they have to change the dynamic in which they compete. Rarely does it make sense to compete head-on with a larger competitor, that’s usually a recipe for disaster. Find something else to compete on and beat them at that – Change the Game!

  2. Hey ! I could not agree more. Be it Google, Dell or other ground breaking great corporations of today all took a different approach to the way conventional wisdom suggested and they were able succeed. This conclusion then is an endorsement for me for this fact.

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