What Basketball Can Teach Us About Innovation

As we ride the #WeTheNorth high, we thought we’d reflect on the things that basketball and design thinking can teach us about innovation.

One of the best examples of design thinking comes from Morice Fredrick “Tex” Winter, one of the greatest basketball minds of the twentieth century. Tex’s greatest development was the Triangle Offense, which he convinced Chicago Coach Phil Jackson to implement with the Bulls team. Tex and Jackson then jointly convinced Michael Jordan to implement their Triangle Offense on the court and the result was six NBA championships. Jackson and Tex then headed off to the Los Angeles Lakers in the late 90’s and convinced both Kobe Bryant and Shaquile “Shaq” O’Neal to use the Triangle, resulting in another three NBA championships (Jackson and Kobe won two more after Tex retired and Shaq left L.A).

So why does design thinking work in basketball? Design thinking asks users to follow five key steps in the innovation process – empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. In the design thinking process each step has a clear output that the following step converts to another output until the organization arrives at an implementable innovation; this is why design thinking can be such a powerful tool to create fully operationalized best practices – like the Triangle Offense.

The design thinking process comes through in the user experience, which in this case would translate to the players’ experience, ensuring their needs – like winning championships – is at the centre of each step’s output. It asks that ideas be identified, prototyped and tested on a team-level, where the user experience provides raw data and deeper insights. This collaborative nature is a key reason that design thinking is so successful among teams of any size – from small departments to entire NBA organizations.

Like Tex, design thinkers will have a portfolio of well-thought-through, although possibly quite different, ideas. The assumptions underlying them will have been carefully tested, and the conditions necessary for their success will be achievable. The ideas will also have the support of committed teams, who will be prepared to take on the responsibility of bringing the innovation to market.

Tex and the Triangle highlight why design thinking should be used to advance innovation in any organization, even the NBA.