Play the Game You Know You Can Win
How can a few pirates in small boats capture and hold huge tanker ships hostage? How can a few scattered people in caves halfway across the world instill fear in the hearts of millions of citizens in the largest, most powerful countries in the world? How can a single independent contractor beat out a 30,000-person consulting firm to win a multi-million dollar contract?
In A Separate Peace, John Knowles’ coming-of-age novel, Phineas invents the game Blitzball, in which everyone chases a single ball-carrier, who must outrun every other competitor. And, as it happens, Phineas always wins. Because he created the rules that favor his particular skills.
That’s the secret of the successful underdog. Play the game you know you can win, even if it means inventing it yourself. Entrepreneurs intuitively understand this; they start their own companies for exactly this reason. I know a tremendous number of extremely successful people who could never get a job in a corporation because they never went to college. So they started their own companies; companies they designed to play to their unique strengths. They invented a game they could win, and then they played it.
In Moneyball, Michael Lewis, one of the great storytellers of our time, explains how the Oakland As, with $41 million in salaries, consistently beat teams with over $100 million in salaries. The richer teams hired the top players based on the traditional criteria: the highest batting averages, most bases stolen, most hits that brought a runner home, and, get this, the all-American look.
Other poorer teams who used the same criteria as the rich ones had to settle for 2nd or 3rd tier people who were less expensive. Which basically guaranteed that the richest teams had the best players and won.
But the Oakland A’s studied the game and reinvented the rules. They realized that the number of times a player got on a base (On Base Percentage) combined with the number of bases a player got each time they came to bat (Slugging Percentage) was a better predictor of success. And no one else was looking at those criteria, so the players who excelled in those areas were cheap. Hiring those people was a game the Oakland A’s could win.
Large consulting firms spend tens of thousands of dollars on glossy proposals to clients. But is that what wins the game? Perhaps what really wins is client ownership over the project, and if you sit with the client and design the project with her, your one-page proposal (that she, in effect, co-wrote with you) will beat their hundred pages every time. At a fraction of the cost. That’s a game an independent contractor can win.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his article How David Beats Goliath, talks about the moment that David shed his armor. He knew he couldn’t win a game of strength against strength. But he also knew he was faster, more agile, and had better aim. So he picked up five stones, dashed out of the pack, and won the battle. He broke the rules and reinvented the game.
Gladwell refers to research done by the political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft who looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years in which one side was at least ten times stronger than the other. He found that the weaker side won almost 30% of the time — a remarkable feat. The reason? They fought a different war than their opponents.
The 70% that lost? They fought the conventional way; they engaged in battle using the same rules as their stronger opponents.
In 1981, Doug Lenat, a computer scientist, entered a war game tournament in which each contestant was given a fictional trillion-dollar budget to spend on a naval fleet of their choosing. The other contenders had deep military background and built a conventional naval fleet with boats of various sizes with strong defenses.
But Lenat had no military background. He simply fed the rules of the tournament to a computer program he invented. A program that was built to win, not to follow convention.
“The program came up with a strategy of spending the trillion dollars on an astronomical number of small ships like P.T. boats, with powerful weapons but absolutely no defense and no mobility,” Lenat said. “They just sat there. Basically if they were hit once, they would sink. And what happened is that the enemy would take its shots and every one of those shots would sink our ships. But it didn’t matter, because we had so many.”
Lenat won the game in a landslide.
What game are you playing? Is it the right game for your particular skills and talents? Is it a perfect set-up for you or your company to win? If not, then perhaps it’s time to play a different game or invent one of your own; one that you can win.
In an earlier version of this post, Phineas from A Separate Peace was erroneously called Phineas Gage.
Peter Bregman is CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that strengthens leadership in people and in organizations through programs (including the Bregman Leadership Intensive), coaching, and as a consultant to CEOs and their leadership teams. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Four Seconds. To receive an email when he posts, click here.