David vs. Goliath, a story of maximal focus

David vs Goliath

Many narratives used when talking innovation are not very robust when you start really looking into them. Some of them like the David vs. Goliath story can even be very misleading.

The narrative of David vs. Goliath has been constantly used to describe how startups and industries interact with each other. Startups being frail but smart and nimble and industrials being powerful, but slow moving. You know the story.

In 2013, I was reading the latest Malcom Gladwell book on this very subject. Biased and stuffed with too many self-serving examples, the book was…not very impressive. That being said, the key example of David vs. Goliath which was introducing the book, was extremely powerful. Gladwell was making the point that David winning  « against all odds » was misguided.

David won because all the odds were on its side.

In his research Gladwell, explained that David was part of a specific type of military section of the time. Heavily trained and focused front-runners, attacking at range at the start of any engagement to powerfully whittle down opposing forces. David wasn’t lucky with his proverbial sling at escaping a sure death at the hands of Goliath: Goliath hadn’t a chance to begin with.

If you apply this updated metaphor of David vs. Goliath to prototyping new businesses as an industrials, investing in startups or working with intrapreneurs, understand that the notions of agility and luck are also overrated. These scouting forces shouldn’t be designed to be just light to be fast, but to be uniquely focused on a clear job to be done. If the focus is to kill from a distance, then yes they will be light and equipped with a sling, not a mace or a sword. On the unique value they have to innovate on, they should give no chance to larger competitors.

That’s one of the reason I always cringe when I hear innovation teams speaking of « minimum viable products » whereas they should maybe speak of « maximal focus »products:

David’s sling is a devastating weapon. It’s one of the most feared weapons in the ancient world. The stone that comes from his sling has the stopping power equivalent to a bullet from a .45 caliber pistol. 

Malcom GLADWELL, in « David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants », 2013

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Tagged David vs Goliath, malcom gladwell, Maximal focus
Philippe Méda

Philippe Méda

Philippe has been training about 200 startups a year since 2007, consulted for dozens of multinationals on rupture innovation or corporate incubation. He also teaches innovation in key MBA programs in Paris and Shanghai.