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What game are you playing? Who are you competing against? And what is ‘winning’ for you? If you are in sales or an import/distribution company, your game might be winning a big contract against a key competitor. Maybe your goal is to get a raise, or to win an athletic contest. Or perhaps you are a trial lawyer going up against the district attorney.

A while back I was reading the obituary of the famous poker player, Amarillo Slim. He was quite a character. But one anecdote jumped out at me and it wasn’t about his card playing. Amarillo Slim once challenged Bobby Riggs to a game of ping pong. Bobby Riggs, of course, had been a world class tennis player but gained enormous notoriety when at the age of 55 he challenged Billy Jean King in the epic “Battle of the Sexes”, a $100,000 winner take all tennis match held in 1973. Clearly Bobby was a pretty interesting cat himself. However, the ping pong match was won by Amarillo. How, you ask? Well, Amarillo Slim was allowed to choose the paddles…and he chose skillets!

Now that’s what I call changing the game. Not only did he entice Riggs into playing ping pong instead of tennis, he took the paddle out of his hand, too. Advantage to Slim!

There was a great story in the New Yorker a few years ago. “How David Beats Goliath” was written by Malcom Gladwell. I highly recommend you read everything he writes. This article talks about the virtue of underdogs not playing by Goliath’s rules in order to win. David and Goliath of course is the famous Bible story of 12 year old David defeating the giant Goliath in battle.

One of the stories in the article is about a computer programmer who entered into a war games competition against some of the top military minds in the country. Contestants were given volumes of rules and were asked to design their own fleet of warships with a make believe budget of one billion dollars. The programmer had developed an artificial intelligence program and for a month for 10 hours every night over 100 computers worked on the problem.

The result: instead of coming up with a traditional fleet of ships, the programmer created a very large number of small ships that had powerful weapons but no defense. He won the tournament two years in a row and would have undoubtedly continued to dominate were it not for the tournament officials threat to cancel the tournament if he entered again.

If the programmer had tried to fight conventionally, he would have gotten hammered. Instead, he changed the game and won convincingly.

I have witnessed several game changers in my life. I’ll share a recent one. In my office building, the building owner employs men and women to help assist tenants and visitors by answering questions, giving directions and opening doors at the noon hour and at the end of the day. They are sometimes called “Day Porters” or “Lobby Ambassadors.”  It is a nice touch for the tenants but not a job with a big upside to it. Some might call it a dead-end job.

About three years ago, the owner hired a 30 something guy named Tom. His personality was friendly but not extroverted. He was average height, average build and average looking.   But right away, you could see Tom was a hard worker. And for the next year and a half, he chartered a course to change his game. I began to slowly realize it and then everyone began talking about it: Tom seemed to know a lot of the names of people who worked in the building. He would introduce himself and ask about our company and what we did. And we learned about his life too. He was very professional. I never heard him swear or tell an off-color joke.  He always went the extra mile…and did I say he knew a lot of our names!  That was very impressive to a lot of us.

One day, I noticed I hadn’t seen Tom for a while. I wondered if he had quit and moved on.  But one of my partners said no, Tom had gotten promoted. The building owner had a number of other businesses and had rewarded Tom’s above and beyond performance with a promotion to a better position.

Tom could have showed up every day and just been a door opener. But he clearly wanted more.

I don’t have a one size fits all strategy for you. But I would highlight a couple of things to think about when you are going against a Goliath:

  • Know what winning is for you. Understand what rules Goliath wants to use.
  • Try to change the rules. If you are playing by IBM’s rules and you are a local tech company, you are going to get crushed.
  • Hide your weaknesses.
  • Make yourself look bigger than you are.
  • Make up for your deficiencies by outworking the competition. Blow the competition away by putting 1,000 ships in the water! Over deliver.
  • Play “Give all you can” vs. “Get all you can.”  You can smell the difference between the two!

Of course, if you keep winning all the time, you will become Goliath. So remember what got you there, ok?  Good luck in changing the game to win big!

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Image courtesy of Mark Strozier and Pat McDonald

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