September 11, 2009

What Tennis Teaches About Strategy and Innovation

My competitive sport of choice, tennis, can teach us a fair amount about strategy and innovation.

Winning points is simple: either your opponent makes an error or you hit a winner. This is true for just about any business as well: a competitor offers an inferior product or service (losing) or you innovate and deliver greater value (winning).

But not all winners are created the same in tennis (or business). The points that get the most applause during a match are often the outright winners ... the service ace, the ripping return, the overhead hit out of the court. Thrilling as those are to hit, they don't represent the majority of points won in most matches.

Instead, most points are won after longer rallies in which players hit each shot to methodically gain a competitive advantage through court position, depth of the ball, and angle of placement. They often use multiple shots to set up an envisioned winner farther into the point. The best players stay light on their feet between strokes, hovering around an approximate center point that allows them to quickly move to their opponent's return.

Players often throw in a low percentage shot simply to mix up the game and see how their opponent reacts. Doing so causes their opponent to second-guess what they might do when facing a similar shot selection in the future.

Points are often won (and energy is conserved) when players see an opponent hit a short ball or one that will rise high above the net, and they move forward to close in on the ball and hit the winner.

Finally, all player have certain strength shots that they turn to when backed into a difficult situation.
These shots do not produce an outright winner, but they keep them competitive in the point and draw on their muscle memory from having successfully executed on the stroke so any times in the past.

All of this sounds like a good strategy for anyone looking to innovate, regardless of their line of business.

  • Stay positioned close to your center (your core mission and products or services) as you look to strike. 
  • Have sufficient patience to put into place today, the processes and people whose future efforts will deliver great returns. 
  • Avoid making outright or unforced errors that result from pure carelessness as opposed to the missteps that result from strategic exploration. 
  • Remain ever-ready to move forward when opportunities for quick winners present themselves.
  • Leverage your proven capabilities when you absolutely have to stay in the game or are looking for a relatively safe win.

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