This 105th article coincides with the second anniversary of this column. Bringing a Biblical perspective to contemporary business issues seemed a no-brainer at the time of mooting the BSBS idea. Thanks to the editorial foresight at the Zimbabwe Independent, underpinned by the paper’s triumvirate of values — independence, innovativeness and reliability — the idea of BSBS was accepted. A year later, BSBS articles are the most frequently searched archive material for this column.
More often than not, I am surprised by how some business and management ideas being touted as being breakthrough in the past 15 years are, on close analysis, captured in the Bible. The story of David versus Goliath has become a metaphor when describing how underlings bring down giants.
There is a widespread chorus of complaints from business leaders in Zimbabwe opining the decimation of local products by cheaper imports from giant economies. We are therefore revisiting the story of David versus Goliath with the intention of extracting principles that Zimbabwean business leaders can employ to overcome the regional and global business Goliaths.
The story is found in 1 Samuel 17. Incredibly, in this short chapter is hidden a science of giant-killing. It is a science in that the principles have been amply supported by empirical proof from contemporary research.
Sample the 5Ss of giant-killing
Stick to job not tool
The terms of reference were clear: kill Goliath. In 1 Samuel 17:25 the job to be done is clear: “So the men of Israel said, ‘Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel; and it shall be that the man who kills him (Goliath) the king will enrich with great riches, will give him his daughter, and give his father’s house exemption from taxes in Israel’. ‘’ The king had a job which he needed done: kill Goliath of Gath.
There is a deeper import to this king-customer-job metaphor. What separates David from Goliath is that David generated several options to do a job a customer needs done. From this portfolio, David chose the simplest and cheapest option to do the job without compromising the expectations of the customer. David had the option of using the conventional munitions of the sword, spear, shield and the javelin. David chose the simpler and cheaper sling. David killed Goliath cheaply. Had he used conventional weapons, he probably would have killed Goliath, albeit, at a great financial cost. David stuck to the job and not to the technology of delivering the customer-assigned job.
Many business leaders have a distorted conception of quality. They define quality on the basis of expectations of their top tier customers. The expectations of different tiers of customers vary and thus a sweeping characterisation of quality is intellectually undersupplied. David always enter markets with products and services stripped of complexities.
Davids ask the question: whose quality? When a service or product meets expectations, it is a quality offering. If an offering does the job for which it is hired, it is a quality offering. Akio Morita, the co-founder of Sony introduced the transistor radio in 1955. Its performance assessed along the standards of the bigger stereos was inferior. However, to teenagers, it was a quality product since it was small and portable, giving them room not to disturb and annoy sensitive parents.
In the story of David, a rich reward awaited an individual who could do the job of killing Goliath. That person’s fame was guaranteed. Here is an eternal lesson on brand building. The primary driver of a brand is doing well the jobs the king (customer) needs done, a mundane lesson so easily lost to many business leaders who think meaning can be shoehorned into a service or product through massive promotion.
Switch battle focus
Davids simply do not rely on prevailing technological platforms. Davids change the focus of the battle. They change the rules of the business game. By introducing a new fighting technology (sling), David changed the battle approach from close-combat to distant-combat. This is a technique in which Goliath had no experience but in which David had unparalleled competence.
Davids are realistic — they are fully aware of the superior capabilities and assets of Goliaths in employing current technologies. Matching Goliath sword for sword is a no-brainer for a David. This is where a number of Zimbabwe’s business leaders are missing it. Metaphorically, they want to compete with Goliath by making better swords. If Davids do succeed in making better swords, Goliaths easily deploy their financial and intellectual assets to make even better swords. Counter-intuitively, David introduced a new fighting technology to warfare — a sling — thereby fundamentally altering the rules of fighting.
To win the global competitiveness game as an underling, look for alternative technologies, forcing competitors to play by a different set of rules —your rules.
Source simplicity outside
David did not invent the sling. He just saw that he could adapt the technology to a new set of problems. Davids source ideas from outside their industry. That’s being resourceful and economic. That’s why the late Steve Jobs could remark: ‘’A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.’’
Don’t be fooled, real Goliaths are innovative — they either get better and better at making swords or get better and better at using swords. Goliaths want to keep getting better at the old game. This ultimately results in costly over-engineered offerings. Davids’ innovativeness is of a different order—they are constantly looking for ways to change the game. Put differently, Davids are not interested in making better swords but in looking for slings.
Zimbabwean firms, realistically, cannot hope to beat the Asian low-cost producers using similar technologies. The basis for competing against Asian low-cost producers has to be different. Zimbabwean firms have to look outside their traditional boundaries for simpler technologies that they can adapt.
For instance, Madagascar developed the System of Rice Intensification, a very simple technology for boosting rice yields, by looking outside the genetical engineering and agro-chemical disciplines. Business leaders should deliberately seek to interact with people who do not think like them.
Changing the game plan by introducing simpler technology always results in opportunities for eliminating standards of the old game, thereby significantly driving production costs down. By switching from a sword to a sling, David eliminated taken-for-granted standards of battle dress. In 1 Samuel 17:38, 39 we read:
“So Saul clothed David with his armour, and he put a bronze helmet on his head; he also clothed him with a coat of mail. David fastened his sword to his armour and tried to walk, for he had not tested them. And David said to Saul, ‘I cannot walk with these, for I have not tested them.’ So David took them off.’’
1 Samuel 17:5-7 contrasts sharply the simplicity of David’s weapons and dress with Goliath’s ostentatious munitions and attire: “He (Goliath) had a bronze helmet on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels (about 55kg) of bronze. And he had bronze armour on his legs and a bronze javelin between his shoulders.
Now the staff of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his iron spearhead weighed six hundred shekels (about 6, 6 kg); and a shield bearer went before him.’’ Herein lies Goliaths’ strategic feebleness.
To keep a competitive edge, Goliaths constantly innovate to improve their current methods and offerings until these become excessive and too expensive to maintain. Davids will never enter a market to better over-engineered offerings. They go for radical simplicity that births affordability.
Davids know that showmanship is suicidal business brinkmanship.
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