September 11, 2009

What Tennis Teaches About Strategy and Innovation

My competitive sport of choice is tennis, and in honor of this week's US Open, I want to offer an observation on what tennis can teach us 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 use each shot hit to methodically gain a competitive advantage through court position, depth of the ball, and angle of placement. 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 a player sees 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, every player has certain strength shots that they turn to when backed into a difficult situation.

That sounds like a good strategy for anyone looking to innovate, regardless of the 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 in the future will deliver great returns. Avoid making outright 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 win.

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