Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog from out good friend Adams Nagar. Adams Nager is an economic research analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Areas of interest include international competitiveness, macroeconomic theory, STEM education policy, and high-skilled immigration issues. Prior to ITIF, Adams was a student at Washington University in St. Louis, where he earned an M.A. in Political Economy and Public Policy and a B.A. in Economics and Political Economy.
Today, Adams looks at the lessons we can learn from Steph Curry and LeBron James about innovation in the workplace.

“You have to see this kid from Davidson,” said my friends who had brought me to a small college gym in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 2008, as I watched a midseason college basketball game of little importance. And sure enough, just a few minutes in, this painfully skinny sophomore comes flying off a screen several feet behind the three-point line, still dogged by a defender, and then somehow sets his feet and still moving laterally lets an improbable shot fly. Only it wasn’t improbable. Swish. My jaw dropped. A huge basketball fan, I had never seen anything like it. I had just seen Stephen Curry for the first time.

A few months later, as Curry led his underdog Davidson team deep into the NCAA tournament, newly-minted NBA MVP LeBron James watched Curry play. “I saw a kid who didn’t care how big someone was, how fast someone else was, how strong someone else was,” said James afterwards.

James is a dominant player in the NBA precisely because he is, indeed, bigger, faster, and stronger than people he is playing against. However, LeBron James and Steph Curry today sit atop the NBA hierarchy together. They account for six of the past eight MVP awards and the last four championships. While LeBron got the better of Curry during this year’s NBA finals, Steph’s miraculous 73-win season and unanimous MVP nod were both historic firsts. And yet the pair couldn’t be more different. LeBron James looks like a four-time MVP, while Steph is 6’3 and can barely dunk. Steph was largely unrecruited out of high school, while LeBron was identified as a potential phenomenon in the eighth grade. James and Curry have come to dominate the NBA in two very different ways, and in doing so embody two very different types of innovation.

Most teams win—and most players succeed—through a series of incremental innovations that provide continuous, but gradual improvement. Imagine an NBA team like a product. At any particular time, the manufacturer focuses on making slight improvements in the product: shaving off a few dollars in cost, improving quality a bit, adding a couple of new designs, etc. These improvements often determine whether a manufacturer is competitive with its rivals across town or across the globe.

LeBron James enjoyed the title of the greatest player in the world for the past several years not because he was bigger, stronger, taller, more mobile, smarter, and more determined than other players. These incremental innovations allow the “LeBron” product to gain market share from the competition.

On the other hand, Curry has perfected a model for playing basketball that no one else can come close to imitating, although his fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson might come the closest. And in doing so, he provides a perfect example of the power of disruptive innovation.

Disruptive innovation is not training to jump half an inch higher or lifting weights to get 10 percent stronger. It is something that allows an entirely new product to enter the market to destroy the competition, and that’s what the “Curry” product is. Indeed, Steph is an iPhone in a Nokia and Blackberry world.

Curry has developed a shooting technique that allows him incredible accuracy not just from the NBA three-point line, but from virtually anywhere beyond midcourt. His form is scarily accurate (he once hit over 70 threes in a row in practice), and his technique works even when closely defended. That is why he holds the record for most threes in a season—making 402 this year—when no one beside him has ever made more than 276. He made more threes this year than the worst three-point shooting teams did in most of the last 10 years. And he made more three pointersthan any NBA team for the first 15 years after the three pointer was introduced. When Michael Jordan won his first championship, his Chicago Bulls hit only 138 three pointers as a team all year, and NBA teams averaged about 200 made threes in a season.

In part this is because Curry has employed creative and novel training techniques that let him develop the ball handling ability to be able to create his own shot in the open court. Moreover, the Golden State Warriors embraced this innovation and built a system around him that has encouraged him to develop as a three-point shooter, recognizing his innovative capability and creating an environment for him to thrive. Indeed, the Golden State Warriors management team has tried to become more of a Silicon Valley startup than a typical NBA front office.

So what happens next? Both James and Curry will continue to be extremely successful. Players will work doggedly to become as fast and as strong as James. However, many players will also seek to imitate Steph. Practicing shots from midcourt will become normal. Exercises to improve dribbling skills to imitate Curry’s will become common. And just as Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett inspired a host of young big men to grow up wanting to play more mobile post-positions, scrapping post-ups for jump-shots and slashing drives, Curry will revolutionize how players approach the point-guard position. Newer players will work on improving Curry’s model, becoming the fastest, strongest, and most determined Curry protégé they can become, continuing a cycle of innovation that will be in turn eventually replaced by whatever is next.

Most teams win by incremental innovations that give them a slight competitive edge. However, examples of disruptive innovation are common in sports, as teams devise new strategies or perfect new skills that allow them to not just beat their competition, but to leave them in the dust until others can figure out how to replicate their methods. Think of high jumper Dick Fosbury, who pioneered the “Fosbury Flop” method of going over the bar backwards, which earned him the gold medal and the world record in 1968. By the next Olympics, the majority of high jumpers had adopted his technique. The St. Louis Rams, dubbed the Greatest Show on Turf, demonstrated that an offense need not establish the run before throwing. They ran rampant over opposing defenses from 1999 to 2001, breaking the all-time yardage record and scoring over 500 points in three consecutive seasons. The 2002 Oakland A’s, who set baseball’s record for longest winning streak with the sixth-lowest paid team in the major leagues, used new statistics to disrupt baseball and set the stage for data-driven revolutions in many sports. And now Curry has done the same, showing how quickly disruptive innovation can elevate a player or a company to the top. And he has shown how quickly those who fail to adapt can be left behind.

LeBron James and Steph Curry represent precisely the two types of innovation that allow companies to be competitive. While the LeBron James’s of the world—large companies who continue to innovate and improve incrementally—provide large value to the economy, disruptive innovations can vault small companies and previously unknown people into positions as global leaders. Companies like Boeing or GE find continuous ways to improve themselves and stay at the forefront of global markets. Meanwhile, companies like Uber or Tesla can find a way to change the way the game is played, and create enormous value from humble beginnings. Curry and the Warriors should remind us that unless more U.S. companies, supported by smart federal government policies like a robust R&D and “innovation box” tax incentives, embrace disruptive innovation to stay ahead of the rest of the global competition, the U.S. economy could look more like the hapless Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers (the two worst teams in the NBA this year).

Throughout the course of business, business owners, who may be in the manufacturing, retail, or in another industry, find themselves focusing on innovation. In fact, the annual ChainLink Research Study found innovation to be the top focus for those involved in the manufacturing community. Ultimately, innovation becomes a priority as its priorities align with the needs of IT departments and the overall business.  When considering innovation for a business, the overall goal is and always will be expansion and business growth. Furthermore, innovation has replaced previous expectations and practices of reducing prices and focusing on reducing the consumers’ costs. In its basic sense, innovation will allow for several key benefits to a business.

Innovation For IT Departments

No matter the size or location of a business, an up-to-date and advanced IT department will always triumph over many other forms of commerce. This occurs as more consumers have sought out ways to purchase goods or services online due to increasingly chaotic and intensive work schedules or inability to reach your business due to location. Furthermore, the number of consumers who want to ensure their data is safe has grown exponentially in recent years, especially considering the massive data breaches at Target and Home Depot.  Your IT department will be responsible for ensuring consumer data, which includes personal and financial information, does not fall into the hands of hackers and malicious individuals.

Your IT department also relies on innovation due to how quickly technology advances. Currently, the average processing speed of computers and amount of physical space required to store a certain amount of digital data doubles every two years, which means you are using outdated computers and technology if it was purchased in summer of 2013. However, this is not a finite estimation, and the advancements of some tech entities, such as Apple and Android, threaten to surpass this 2x per-year rate at any moment.

Innovation Reduces Risk to Businesses

Proper risk management can make or break a business. Consider what could happen if a customer sues a business for failure to ensure safety for customers in a retail space. The resulting lawsuit could financially bankrupt a business. However, innovation avoids this problem by accounting for ways to ensure a customer does not encounter this issue. It sounds simple, but the floor squeegee was once considered an innovative business tool. Obviously, most modern innovations will focus on improving supply chain processes throughout the course of business, not the ancient squeegee example.

When you use a 3PL to improve the innovative efforts of your business, which include manufacturing and shipping, the respective 3PL will ensure your business practices use the latest innovations for improving efficiency throughout the supply chain. For example, the innovation could be the introduction of Radio-Frequency Identification of your merchandise to creating a more fuel efficient or cost-effective way of producing your goods or as simple as optimizing your current transportation network by deploying multiple shipping strategies. Furthermore, innovations with accounting and tracking software will lower risks to a business by ensuring purchase orders and expenses are paid, shipped, or otherwise acted upon, which ensures your business processes do not get in the way of ensuring a gain rather than a loss.

Innovation Allows For Healthy Competition

Your business will always have competitors, and competition is good for business as well. Competition helps to ensure prices stay low, customers have options, and your business does not carry all of the weight during the high-traffic times of the holidays. However, you cannot become lost in ensuring you have competitors. You need your competitors, but your business also needs to surpass your competitors. Additionally, you must consider which of your competitors have gained an advantage over your business due to innovation.

As a result of your competitor’s innovations, you will need to be more innovative to ensure your business survives. This may include producing more products more efficiently, or ensuring timely delivery of products. If your business is heavily rooted in the electronics industry, for example, you sell electronics or other tech-merchandise, you will always need to follow the innovations of other companies and work to further your technology capabilities.

When a competitor fails, any innovations they made will also falter, and their customer base will disperse towards the previously-existing business’s competitors. However, customers will expect the same standards and delivery of goods as they have previously come to expect. Now, this should not be taken as a license to actively try to discredit or force your competitors to close. However, business remains a “dog-eat-dog” world, and businesses that do not take advantage of other business’ failures will not be to progress or adapt to a changing market.

As a business owner, you will face thousands of tough decisions as you ensure your business is successful. The ChainLink study reiterates the need for innovation will always be a constant in the business world. From the direct impact on IT departments and digital capabilities to mitigating risk to encouraging competition in the marketplace, innovation has garnered a permanent place in the minds of business experts and owners. If your business has not taken advantage of the improvements in technology, skill, design, or manufacturing, your business has already started down the path towards failure. You have been charged with ensuring success, and your actions must reflect the needs and expectations of the manufacturing and shipping industry, especially as they pertain to innovations for business.

Innovation Culture at Cerasis

Innovation is in our DNA and it’s the lifeblood of our core tenets below:

We then execute these by using the FISH! Philosophy program as well as developing a plan for each of our managers to grown and lead their departments to the best of their ability. How do you foster a mindset and culture of innovation in your company? Let us know in the comments below!

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