Basketball as an innovation metaphore

I just realised that the approach to basket ball described by The no-stars all star, from the NY Times, is a nice model for innovation (whatever that is).

I’ve been struggling for a while to understand how to define innovation other than retrospectively (isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing). We can pin down invention, customer need, product development, marketing etc. — all the elements to make an innovation successful — but picking an innovation seems the impossible task.

Efforts to define and codify innovation are like capturing lightening in a bottle. You can’t systematise a process which has a large degree of luck to it. What you can do, though, is to be prepared. This is where tools like design thinking fit in.

The interesting thing about the basketball article is that the coach admitted that basketball is a numbers game. Given the game’s high scoring rate, it’s not enough to have killer skills; there’s a large element of luck involved: being in the right place at the right time.

The coach’s approach is to try and increase his chances of being lucky, which he uses two tactics to achieve:

  • Try and be as efficient as possible.
  • Try to make your opposition as inefficient as possible.

The coach grinds the numbers to understand what are the odds of sinking or blocking a shot in each and every position on the court, and for each and every player. He then focuses on positioning his players to improve his odds, while reducing the odds of the opposing team. This makes his team more efficient, and more likely to capitalise on an opportunity, and the opposition less efficient, and less likely to capitalise on an opportunity. Think: forcing an opponent to shoot from the right when he prefers (and is more successful with) the left.

A common mistake is to assume that innovation is a creative processes: it’s not (you can always steal the idea rather than think of it yourself). Many of the tools we use to help companies to manage innovation are focused on making them more efficient in managing the innovation journey: focusing their energies where they are needed the most. Now with basketball as an inspiration, it might be possible to bring these tools together in a more scientific framework.

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