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This year, ring in some sport

Vinay Kanchan
posted on 14th January 2015
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2015 is upon us.

As usual, I am sure you have attempted some resolutions. Perhaps one of them might be, ‘this year I will not be distracted when I am at work’. This is probably the most deceptively difficult resolution to adhere to of them all. In fact, even while reading this it is likely your eyes have furtively darted past the screen to check your phone or some interesting scenery –flora and fauna in the vicinity.

stumps

Distraction is an inevitable reality of the modern world. And it would be foolish to assume that it does not incessantly intrude the workplace, in reality it does, even more so. The pressure laden mind always seeks a diversion to relax, and these days the detour is readily available at the mere click of a button.

Rather than fighting such a natural impulse, is there merit in leveraging it to enhance the thinking at hand? This is surely an interesting premise to explore.

Sport is often a place where the over stressed mind finds solace. Glimpsing a bit of the match, even as one is furiously typing away at the afternoon presentation, provides not just much needed succor, but it can also do so much more. If only one gave it that chance.

Given our nation’s obsession with cricket, it is perhaps only right to examine what ideas come to mind when cricket volunteers such a ‘reservoir of inspiration’ to extrapolate business related ideas from. Considering the quest for innovation is assuming increasing importance across almost all industries these days, what follows are some thought starters in that direction, which such a lateral adventure might trigger.

Leveraging the accidental event

In this year of the World Cup, it is fascinating to note that one day cricket was literally born from the Ashes.

Legend has it that on the fifth day of a rain impaired test between England and Australia, the management and players decided to put up an impromptu limited overs show for the gathered spectators. The feedback on all fronts must have been encouraging, because in just a few years’ time, cricket had its first World Cup.

What is really revealing about this story is that cricket, given its obsession with rather stiff ‘white clothed tradition’, was flexible and responsive enough to see the potential of an idea, which had been stumbled upon.

Not for nothing has accident been often called the greatest inventor. Even in the business world there would be numerous such cases.

Take 3M’s Post It, which began as a failed product. Dr. Steven Spencer’s attempt to create a super strong adhesive, threw up something which no one quite knew what to do with. Until his colleague Art Fry suggested that these strips (which stuck on one side only) could make for excellent book marks. Then, through a series of serendipitous discoveries (like secretaries finding these could be extremely useful for leaving key notes on documents, which they needed their bosses to sign) and some astute persistence, it found interesting new uses and very soon grew to be a global mega brand.

Random occurrences have the potential to add genuine value to business; if and only if, they are viewed with an open mind. The fact that they have not been budgeted for, should not diminish the scope of their impact. After all, as in cricket, it’s the gloriously unpredictable nature of the sport, which makes it such a great game in the first place.

Synthesizing two different ideas

Sachin Tendulkar, by his own admission, had two batting heroes when he was growing up -- Sunil Gavaskar and Vivian Richards.

The stolid, impregnably magnificent defense of Gavaskar, wonderfully merged with the swashbuckling audacity of Richards’s stroke play in Sachin’s mind; to start nurturing the prototype of the perfect batsman. He found a middle ground between the two concepts. And every batting record began to fall in the wake of that epiphany.

Innovation is rapidly becoming a fundamental prerequisite for success in the business world these days. Companies engaged in the pursuit of breakthrough offerings are often juggling with several potential ideas and approaches. Many times these discussions assume an absolutely polar nature. Ideas take up confrontational positions at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

For example, the two wheeler industry is continually battling over the continuum of ‘power’ at one end and ‘mileage’ at the other.

Most finance companies are faced with the challenge of devising their offerings over ‘stability’ on one side and ‘higher returns’ on the other.

Foods corporations fight daily battles between ‘taste’ at one starting point and ‘health’ at the distant other culmination.

Effective organizations are those which can see the possibilities presented by synthesis. This does not necessarily imply the watering down of both ideas; but is more in the spirit of creating a new concept by preserving their dual strengths. Like in the mythological story where nectar is extracted, it is only when a churn (manthan) is undertaken, something truly brilliant emerges.

Perhaps classic Bollywood movies of the seventies used to capture this combination of several ideas and genres perfectly. These potboilers were hard to classify purely under any one heading of say ‘action’ or ‘romance’ or ‘suspense’ or ‘musical’. The best of them happily added all these ingredients to create a truly engaging eclectic mix. And this is why many of them, like Tendulkar, enjoy cult status even today.

Appreciating the view from the other side

As one day cricket began to dominate the sport, the bowlers found themselves at the rough end of things. They needed to quickly find alternatives to thwart the intentions of someone, hell bent on sending them out of the park. And so was born the slower ball.

What is absolutely fascinating about the slower ball is that its invention has been credited to a player who was predominantly a batsman, and not a bad one at that --Steve Waugh.

Perhaps to full time pace bowlers, the thought of slowing down (till then) was absolutely against their grain. Maybe being too close to their own discipline had blinkered their view. But Waugh being also a top class batsman was able to view things from the other side. And he used that perspective to telling effect.

Ever since, the slow ball has entered nearly every medium pacers armory.

The principle of the ‘view from the other side’, which governed the creation of the slower ball, is of immense relevance in modern day business as well. Companies have to comprehensively understand what their customer experience is like, and how it is changing. Being able to witness something from the other side often results in a more empathetic, and hence more effective approach.

The story of Ideo designing a toothbrush for children with softer grips arose because they observed small children, literally clenching their brushes in their palms, unlike adults who used only their fingers to hold it. Interestingly soft grip toothbrushes are preferred even by adults these days because fundamentally they make for a more comfortable brushing experience.

Most organizations proudly profess to be in the service of the customer. But how many really undergo the extra effort of truly understanding the perspective from the other side? Consciously empathizing with the conditions one’s product or service is likely to be consumed in, frequently catalyzes innovation just as the slower ball often bowls batsmen over.

Exploiting the loopholes

Those at the receiving end of sledging would consider cricket as much of a gentleman’s game as Mozart would classify modern day hip hop music to be a part of his musical repertoire.

Sledging while not strictly in the spirit of cricket, nonetheless over the years, has developed into a potent weapon in the cricketing armory. It involves verbal aggression, to the extent of upsetting an opponent and gaining a vital advantage, by disrupting his thought process.

At the core, sledging is all about reading between the lines. The lines of the cricketing rule book that is. For while there has always been an unarticulated covenant of playing the game in the right spirit, there is no mention of what cannot be done. One would struggle to find the eleventh commandment, ‘thou shall not sledge’, in the holy book of cricket.

And this is precisely the gap exploited by those who sledge!

Sledging does shed light on how rules can be imaginatively played around with.

While there are examples of companies creatively classifying their products and services differently to avail of tax and economic benefits; an interesting case around this line of thought presents itself from Indian mythology.

The demon king Hiranyakashipu had been blessed with a set of ‘impossible to defeat’ boons. These stated that he could neither be killed by man nor animal. He could not be vanquished either in the sky or on the ground. He could not be defeated in the day or in the night. And that he would not meet his end either inside the house or outside it.

Lord Vishnu overcame these barriers creatively by assuming the Narasimha avatar. Narasimha was half man and half lion, who beat Hiranyakashipu by taking him on his lap (neither sky nor ground), at twilight (neither day nor night), on the threshold of his house (neither inside nor outside it) and then killing him.

Perhaps there has been a divine precedent set for finding innovative answers by reading in between the lines.

While this exercise began with cricket, it is easy to imagine that other sports could also offer as wide a canvas to eke out ideas from. Sport has packed in it dollops of inspiration, invention and insight. From personality to platform and process to pinnacle, sporting sagas have the potential to inform the problem at hand in myriad different ways. It only takes the effort of opening one’s mind and letting it out to play a bit.

So this year when thinking on the corporate challenge at hand hits a wall, call in for some energetic help. Ring in some sport!

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