I’ve written about Malcolm Gladwell before. I’m a fan because the trends and patterns he identifies always make intuitive sense – even before they make practical sense.

When he wrote The Tipping Point, he talked about Mavens (the people who know a lot about a topic) and Connectors (the people who know a lot of people) as the way in which ideas spread. It was a lovely intuitive idea. And it really took off when social media was ‘invented’, but this came much later. I’ve also written about his book Blink, which was extremely prescient in a marketing world I called ‘Surviving the swipe’.

So when he chose his next topic David & Goliath, I was interested. It’s a book that pays respect to being small, nimble and why apparent disadvantage can become the source of your greatest advantage. As a small business owner, it’s a heartening rallying cry.

More interestingly though, when he re-tells the famous story of David vs Goliath, he sheds new light on an old story. The original story casts David as the unlikely, slight hero with extra-ordinary bravery that takes on the giant he should not conquer. He wins by his intelligence, and his strategy. And while all of this is true, what Gladwell suggests is that this was not by accident.

Ancient Armies consisted, he says, of three components:

·      Cavalry – horse drawn fighters with the advantage of speed

·      Infantry – the muscle, whose advantage is strength. Goliath was infantry

·      Slingers – agile, accurate throwers of  (sometimes small but) damaging objects. Their advantage is surprise. David was a slinger.

Gladwell’s argument is that it was less an act of random courage and more an act of predetermined ancient military strategy, that acted as a sort of ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ in a military setting.

A successful army needs to employ all three strategies well to succeed. Yet we see all too often that it’s speed and strength that are applied with the greatest consistency – generally single-mindedly.

A company either tries to be first, or conquers with its volume and size. Which is why little ‘slingers’ like Uber, AirBnB etc are so successful. They didn’t always invent the category they play in, but their razor-sharp accuracy on what experience was required has allowed them to fend off much bigger players.

So, if you are a small business, you should be focusing less on how fast you can innovate. Less on how much market share you can buy (you probably don’t have the resources for that anyway). Your focus should be on the element of surprise – doing things meaningfully better than people thought possible.

And if you are a large business, how are your troops lined up? Do you have departments or agency partners that deliver against all three disciplines?

Expecting the beefy infantry agency to come up with a slinger idea may not be the best way forward. One is structured around delivering the very necessary weight of attack and solidity of defense. But they won’t have the nimbleness you require to spot the opportunities, and will always be seeking ‘scale’. 

David has taught us that sometimes it’s the smallest stones, flung at the right time, which devastate the competition.