Sometimes the Best Way to Win is by Finishing Third

19 09 2011

I had the pleasure of hearing Malcolm Gladwell speak last week at a tech conference in Milwaukee.  You may be familiar with his books, which include The Tipping Point, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw.   Mr. Gladwell opened his discussion with the Bekaa Valley Air Battle which took place in 1982.  Considered one of the most lopsided battles in military history, the air battle represented the use of modern warfare which saw the Israelis decimate their Lebanese foes in just a few short days.  The mismatch was so bad that it has been labeled “The Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot”.

What Mr. Gladwell recognized here was Israel didn’t use any technology they developed.  Instead they mastered what others had innovated.  For example, the Soviets were master strategists.  Their centralized power allowed them to bring great minds together to think of the best ways to fight in modern warfare.  However the Soviets did not possess the technology their strategy utilized.  The Americans are a different case.  Their fractioned yet highly entrepreneurial military had developed many of the technologies and weapons necessary to successfully lead the fight.  By combining the best of the two, the Israeli military was able to carry out an attack with such precision, they completely shut down the Lebanese.

We often place too much emphasis on our need to be first in the race.  Yet in many businesses where the business model may be new or evolving, it can actually be better to enter third.  Mr. Gladwell pointed out that Steve Jobs and Apple have been the best at this.  They weren’t really the first to develop anything.  What they did do was take the idea and make it better.

The most important phrase Mr. Gladwell shared was culture dictates innovation.  If you have the right culture, you can do great things.  What you need to do is create a culture that will allow you to be successful.  Yet cultures can be difficult to change.  As leaders, it is necessary to take the time to define what you want to become.  The direction you take your business is the choice of you and your culture.  What direction is it taking you?


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