|Originally published at cpsrenewal.ca
Last week I picked up Malcom Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, and crushed it over the course of a couple of days*. The book explores the power asymmetries between incumbents and upstarts and how successful upstarts exploit those asymmetries by engaging in unconventional tactics. The book takes its title from the biblical story of David and Goliath and is a deeper look at a phenomenon he wrote about for the New Yorker in 2009 about an otherwise untalented basketball team that started to dominate when the coach decided to employ a full court press.
If I had to boil down the essence of the book it would be this: David (the underdog) loses when he battles Goliath (the incumbent) according to Goliath’s rules; however if/when David refuses to play by Goliath’s rules, he greatly increases his chances of success.
The argument is compelling and seems to makes sense intuitively (and perhaps in my case experientially) but is it a lens that can be applied to the organizational context, and if so what examples could be used to illustrate the case?
GCPEDIA: A David among Goliaths
The project’s success to date is due in no small part to the fact that it (and its administrators, stewards and advocates) have chosen to pursue paths that the Goliath mindset would otherwise have ignored: it’s open source, offers users no ability to lock out others from their content, is housed in a department that technically doesn’t have the mandate to house it, is supported by a small and highly dedicated (mission driven) team, and remains the only universally accessible zero barrier to entry collaboration solution within the Government of Canada. It sits in stark contrast to departmental solutions to collaboration, many of which are costly, license heavy software(s) that offer users the ability to restrict access to their content and tend to be administered by large administrative bodies who are seized with administering the administrivia of the administration (if you get my meaning).
Having been close to the project during its early years, keeping an eye on it, and knowing a number of people close to the project today, I can say with some degree of certainty – and without compromising anyone’s confidence – that the project’s core challenge is and always has been seen as how do we, borrowing Gladwell’s language, transform this David into a Goliath. How do we take this thing that has been successful not because of the rules but in spite of them, into something more stable? How do we take GCPEDIA from an upstart to an incumbent?
What I find absolutely fascinating is the related fact that GCPEDIA disintermediates so many of our traditional power structures – hierarchy, geography, group and level, ministry, etc – that it is not only a David among Goliaths but rather that it enables Davids to rise up among the Goliaths. It provides an alternative path to non-traditional sources of power, influence and opportunity by allowing peoples’ work to break out of its normal constraints and be easily shared with the organization writ large and be put to use by any one of the 250,000+ individuals working across the enterprise.
This is precisely one of the points that Nicco Mele argues in his book (similarly titled) The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath (which, incidentally, we reviewed here), that many of the technologies being built today have an inherently anti-institutional ethos built right into them and thus reinforces that type of culture – a culture of upstarts that is fundamentally at odds with the traditional cultures of hierarchy.
After thinking it through, I can’t help but see some sort of explicit connection between the fact that while GCPEDIA may be a David among Goliaths. Recall, its under-tapped potential is to enable Davids among Goliaths and that ultimately even if it is successful, our cultural upstarts will ultimately face the same challenge as our technological ones: how to scale.
*Despite being familiar with Gladwell’s work and the theses of his books (which have penetrated the mainstream due in part to his popular narrative style), I never actually took the time to read any of his books. After reading David and Goliath, I have since read both Outliers and Blink and am in the middle of Tipping Point.