In a long, wide-ranging dialog with Bill Simmons, Malcolm Gladwell makes the following observation:
After my piece ran in The New Yorker, one of the most common responses I got was people saying, well, the reason more people don’t use the press is that it can be beaten with a well-coached team and a good point guard. That is (A) absolutely true and (B) beside the point. The press doesn’t guarantee victory. It simply represents the underdog’s best chance of victory. It raises their odds from zero to maybe 50-50. I think, in fact, that you can argue that a pressing team is always going to have real difficulty against a truly elite team. But so what? Everyone, regardless of how they play, is going to have real difficulty against truly elite teams. It’s not a strategy for being the best. It’s a strategy for being better. I never thought Louisville — or, for that matter, Missouri — had a realistic shot at winning it all in the NCAAs this year. But if neither of those teams pressed, they wouldn’t have been there in the first place. I wonder if there isn’t something particularly American in the preference for “best” over “better” strategies. I might be pushing things here. But both the U.S. health-care system and the U.S. educational system are exclusively “best” strategies: They excel at furthering the opportunities of those at the very top end. But they aren’t nearly as interested in moving people from the middle of the pack to somewhere nearer the front.
This is a really powerful observation. I often think of it when I think about all of the interviewing tips you see from people who work at places like Google. When what you are offering is a job at Google, you can take a different approach to hiring than you can most other places.
People are always encouraged to emulate the biggest and best, but the most effective strategies are tailored to suit the specific position of the organization adopting them. Telling a startup to be like Google (or General Electric) is like telling a sardine to imitate a shark or a blue whale. It’s not going to work.