Play the Game You Know You Can Win
Tuesday June 2, 2009
By Peter Bregman (reprinted with author permission)
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.
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Peter Bregman writes a weekly column called How We Work at Harvard Business and is a regular contributor at CNN. He speaks, writes, and consults about how to lead and how to live. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and advises CEOs and their leadership teams. You can sign up to be notified when he writes a new article. Bregman is the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change and can be reached at www.peterbregman.com.