Several years ago I took on the challenge of coaching my daughter’s middle school basketball team. I wanted to spend more time with her, and the team was without a coach. The problem was I had never even touched a basketball.
I did, and do, know how to run a business, however. I was pleasantly surprised, as were the girls, to find what helped me succeed in business worked to the basketball court, and vice versa.
David vs. Goliath. This was not your conventional winning team. The girls didn’t come from athletic families. They weren’t tall or well coordinated. They couldn’t shoot. They were underdogs but we turned that to our advantage.
Underdogs have to think outside the box. They can't rely on size and strength. We had to think more strategically and find unorthodox approaches to the game. We analyzed our opponents’ weaknesses and found most teams, immediately after scoring, retreat to defend their basket, giving their opponent the opportunity to inbound the ball to their teammate without pressure and execute a well-practiced play with precision.
Lacking much skill, but we had to disrupt that flow. We had to play in real time. We had to play a full-court press, the entire game. By taking the unconventional approach, we were able to catch our opponents off-guard, which gave us the advantage. And we won, a lot.
Enterprises should be doing the same. There’s a growing competition in every industry. The companies that win are finding new, innovative ways of providing for their customers and turning them into fans. Conventions are made to be challenged. The companies that take the unorthodox approach can break through and succeed. Notice if there are any unique trends in how your competitors are operating. Why they are working?
Speed Wins. To execute a real, full-court press, my girls had to be fitter, faster and more aggressive than the competition. Through conditioning, we were a low-latency team. We played the game at a much higher and inexhaustible speed than anyone else, giving us a huge advantage over our bigger, stronger and more skilled competition.
Just as there’s no reason our team should wait until the other team gets to our end of the court to start defending, there’s no value in receiving data that could increase a company’s sales a month after the event. Enterprises should be taking an offensive stance and act on events in real time.
As a coach, I looked at the data on the court - the shot clock, the number of inbound passes, spatial geometry, shots made, the speed of our team vs. the others, etc. - and realized speed was our advantage. This is the case in business, as well. It’s not enough for companies to just collect data. To actually see positive outcomes, businesses need to continuously process and analyze fast data in real time and take instant action. Be a low-latency business. When it comes to winning, speed is everything.
Work like a jazz band. Even on a ragtag team, everyone has a role to play and every one is vital to its success. We had two experienced players, but the rest of the team, like me, had never played the game. The challenge was how to leverage all the players in a way that would lead to victory.
These were girls who spent their time solving math problems and dreaming of becoming marine biologists, not playing sports. Rather than tell them how I thought the game should be played, I had to appeal to reason. Basketball was a math problem, and that was something the girls could understand. We developed a math equation that would ensure we would win every time. They learned the roles they each needed to play in this equation.
It all came together as a symphony but it wasn’t the structured music of a marching band like the other teams. Rather than read off sheet music and march to the same beat, our team created its own sound, its own game. The typical rhythm of a basketball game goes like this: after a player scores, the other team has five seconds to inbound the ball. Typically, this goes uncontested. That I saw to be a missed opportunity. My girls contested the inbounder, disrupting the rhythm of the game. We played more like an improvisational jazz band, agile, quick and adaptable to changes, resulting in a beautifully orchestrated force.
In the 20th-century business world, corporations were structured and predictable like a Sousa marching band. Over the last century, however, enterprises have evolved a more jazz band-like environment, embracing ambiguity, risk and adventure. Jazz musicians are often more courageous than other musicians. They have faith in their ability to choose, create and dream. That makes them great. That also makes a great company.
Hire smart people, give them the freedom to improvise and innovate, take advantage of their unique strengths. The result is beautiful music.
Attitude is everything. But a coach can’t just force players to buy into such a system. I had to take a number of morale-improving steps to show them that I believed in them and our strategy. For starters, I never raised my voice at the girls. These were 12-year-old girls with enough emotional growing pain in their lives. I wanted to create a fun environment where the girls were motivated to work harder and smarter by the prospect of success, not by the threat of negativity. I let them name our plays. “Muskrat” and “Bubbles” were two of our favorites. We had a cheer that was all about the attitude, with a little humor – “1,2,3, attitude, ha!”
This is true at my company, as well. Exhibit an unshakable belief in people and they don’t want to let you down. They actually perform better. Good employees will do good work for you, regardless. Motivated and appreciated employees will do truly great work.
Turn customers into fans. Our team parents were our biggest fans who supported us at every game. They didn’t need convincing to become fans. Businesses, however, don’t have fans from the start and can no longer get away with purely a transactional relationship, not these days with so much competition from all directions.
Companies can turn customers into fans by finding better and more personal ways to engage with them. With Big Data, the amount of information companies can glean from their customers is huge. Take advantage of that data to figure out what they want, when they want it, how they want it, and act on that in real time. It is no longer a struggle, if you have the right tools. Companies that do this well, and fast, have a leg-up on their competitors. They will connect with customers much more intimately. It’s these companies that are more likely to turn customers into longtime, loyal fans that drive future revenue.
Overtime. Whether you’re a CEO or a coach, there are a number of principles that apply to winning. Speed, working together, the right attitude and thinking outside the box all can yield positive results no matter what business you’re in. You don’t have to look to business gurus or books for the Holy Grail. Sometimes, the inspiration to improve your business can be found no further away than your local basketball gym.