Six Innovation Lessons We Can Learn from Cavs/Warriors III

As a member of Mercer’s innovation team, Chris Chan relentlessly scans the market for the start-ups and new products with the most potential to succeed. He’s also a sports fan. His post brings these two passions together.

The NBA Finals are about to tip off in Oakland with an unprecedented back-to-back-to-back matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. Here are six lessons that we can all learn from their recent successes:

  • Reinvent the game. Both the Cavs and Warriors run effective small-ball line-ups, playing without a traditional center on the floor. What? Basketball without your tallest players? Heresy! Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, these lineups have been impressively efficient, being faster, nimbler and more versatile. They're definitely enabled by the fact that both LeBron James and Draymond Green can play all five positions on the floor. This often frees up 3-point shooters on the wings, adding offensive power. Drawing inspiration from this idea, ask yourself a few questions. Who are the most versatile members on your team? How might unique advantages affect your recruiting approaches and team configuration? What are the conventional rules that everyone else is playing by, but worth breaking?
  • Focus on the right metrics. Last year, the Warriors went a record-breaking 73-9 over the course of the regular season.  Ultimately, they made their way through the playoffs, building up to a 3-1 lead in the finals against the Cavs. The Cavs then stormed back to win the next three games and become the NBA Champions, leaving the Warriors and their 73-win season behind in disappointment. Did the pressure of getting that record lead to fatigue, or cause the Warriors to peak too early? Who knows, but losing the championship sure left some tarnish on that 73-win season. In the business world, are you focused on the right metrics? Or do you have empty victories that weaken your hunger for the true prize at the finish line.
  • Empower your leaders. During the last two seasons, Warriors coach Steve Kerr has missed a significant number of games due to back pain (43 games last year and the entire playoffs so far this year), yet the Warriors have continued to be dominant, with both Luke Walton and Mike Brown stepping up to contribute seamlessly. Of course, having a talented roster with multiple All-Stars doesn't hurt, but realizing leadership continuity is easier said than done.
  • Position yourself for luck. Both the Warriors and Cavs have had Lady Luck on their side. Steph Curry's current salary is $12.1M, which ranks 83rd in the NBA this year and doesn’t come anywhere close to Steph's worth to the organization. But back in 2012, Curry signed a four-year, $44 million contract extension that some people felt was a gamble for the Warriors; he had ankle injuries and, though gifted, was far from the MVP player he is today. The Warriors also wheeled-and-dealed for multiple picks in the 2012 draft and got Draymond Greene in the 2nd round, with every other team overlooking the future All Star.  At the same time, the Cavs were in a drought, having a league-worst 97–215 record in the four seasons following LeBron's departure to South Beach. This led to #1 picks in 2011, 2013 and 2014. What are the odds of that? Position yourself to take advantage of good luck. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.
  • Have grit. The Cavs were down 3-1 in the finals last year and came back to win it all. As a Warriors fan, I still cringe at the outcome. Coming back from 3-1 had only happened 10 times previously in NBA playoff history and never in the Finals...and yet, the Warriors were lucky enough to have made it to the Finals last year, having just come back from being down 3-1 themselves in the Western Conference Finals against Oklahoma City and Kevin Durant. I'll also point to personal grit and Shaun Livingston on the Warriors. If you haven't seen it (and don’t look if you haven't), Shaun suffered one of the worst injuries ever seen on the court, back in 2007. After being told that there was a chance that his leg would have to be amputated, Livingston required months of rehabilitation to be able to walk again. But he signed with the Miami Heat in the fall of 2008 and bounced around the league through 10 teams (including the Cavs!) before finding an eventual home with the Warriors, becoming a key player off the bench in their run to the 2015 NBA championship.  All too often, people give up in the face of adversity or right before they're about to achieve breakout success.  But they'll never know it, and will always be left wanting.
  • Savor the moment. With such consistent success from both the Cavs and Warriors throughout their finals trilogy, it's easy to take things for granted and forget to enjoy the journey and not just the destination. In the future (hopefully many, many years from now), when the two teams are at the bottom of the standings, fans will look back with fondness on both teams' successes. I hope we can all say that we’ve been on teams (whether professionally or personally) where the camaraderie and talent has felt effortless and magical – where everyone knew their role, stepped up to anticipate obstacles and offer solutions and worked together to overcome adversity. Those moments and those teams don’t last forever. Recognize them and cherish them.

Soak it in Warriors and Cavs fans, and may the best team win!

Chris Chan
by Chris Chan

Principal, Innovation LABS, Mercer

Chris is a Principal and Innovation Imagineer with Mercer’s Health Innovation LABS, where he helps build creative solutions that complement employers’ health and welfare benefits programs. He focuses on developing strategies and products through the use of human-centered design, machine learning, consumer data insights and creating customer delight. Chris graduated from the University of California with a degree in neurobiology.

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