4 Innovation Lessons from the Miami Heat

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If you’re a fan of basketball, competition and innovation, you will enjoy this. Before the start of the NBA season, ESPN published a fascinating article about how the Miami Heat’s offense will be reinvented. As you might remember, the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the last year’s NBA Finals.

After the loss, the Heat’s Head Coach, Erik Spoelstra had a lot of time to think about how we would reinvent his team. His answer: Study the Oregon Ducks spread offense to see how he could apply the same principles to create a fast-paced basketball offense.

How might an offense that’s powered by dynamic players be reinvented?

By playing to their strengths. What are their strengths? Athleticism, speed, smarts and skill.

While this may seem obvious to the hard core basketball fan, they really limited themselves last year. To change their style and make better use of their strengths, what they’ve done this year is cut down on the scripted plays and let it fly.

So what can we learn from the Miami Heat?

Inspiration from Everywhere

After having a conversation with Oregon Ducks Coach Chip Kelly, Coach Spoelstra started to wonder: Could a no-huddle spread offense work in the NBA?

What does Football strategy have to do with basketball? Absolutely nothing to the average person. But that’s the point. Bringing and adapting ideas from other domains may seem counter-intuitive, but it can result in game-changing strategies. As I mentioned before, this is the new logic of innovation.

Learn Fast, Fail Fast, Tweak Fast

OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act). It’s funny how much I notice this pattern in sports and business. It all comes down to on-the-fly decision making based on how fast can you read situations. Adaptability and Speed is the name of the game here. This isn’t easy to do because it requires people who have very good instincts. It is also what is commonly known in the business world as emergent strategy, where you learn and develop strategy on the fly. “Learn Fast, Fail Fast, Tweak Fast” is the mantra here.

Role Playing

Walking in your customers shoes. Coach Spoelstra had his coaching staff role-play as the Miami Heat to put the new strategy to the test. This resulted in the coaching staff becoming more aware of what their players actually saw on the court:

But upon returning from the trip around the country, Spoelstra realized he was in a bit of a bind. He had all these compelling ideas about how to deploy his players on the court, except he had no players to deploy thanks to the lockout. So Spoelstra walked into the Heat arena and told his coaching staff to lace up and get out on the practice court.

Spoelstra and his assistants decided to play a game of pretend: Be the Miami Heat.

For Spoelstra, the exercise allowed him to see what they were missing all last season. What exactly does LeBron see in the pick-and-roll with Bosh at the top of the key? Which lanes open up for Wade when LeBron sets a screen at the elbow? What happens when they switch spots? What will the defense decide to do when Bosh goes to the perimeter while LeBron flies down the lane in transition?

Spoelstra’s discoveries from his conversations with Kelly were reinforced during the role-playing exercise. Everything needed to be fast, instinctual and responsibly impulsive. That includes forgoing play calls every time down the court.

Spoelstra realized that the Heat’s playing style and roster didn’t need to be confined by convention. No, the traditional principles of coaching become obsolete when three superstars, two of whom are perennial MVP candidates, decide to play together. And the Heat’s trio is largely interchangeable, especially with Bosh adding a 3-point shot and LeBron polishing his post game.

I added extra emphasis to this point because it’s very important. In this case walking in your customers shoes was actually getting on the court and acting as Miami Heat players. Empathy makes all the difference and this is key.


Not physical fitness (although it’s important for athletes), but team fitness. Do you fit the mold of the pieces needed to execute the strategy? For the Heat, apart from athletic ability, quick mindedness and creativity are needed.

In the world of business, not everyone is fit to work at Google. Why? Because Google has a very distinct way of operating, a distinct culture. To take an automotive analogy, the parts needed to run it’s engine are custom made just for them.

Your organization has to take on a persona, an identity. One that defines you and call your own.


As you can see, innovation just doesn’t happen in the world of business, it happens in every walk of life. And it also shows that benchmarking against your industry/competitors us just plain crazy. There are many boxes with ideas that you pick and play with, then adapt them to your own domain.

If we look at the world of business through the conventional view of competition, what you want to be is un-scoutable. Different. Unpredictable. Unique. You want your competitors to look at you and scratch their heads because they just don’t know what you are going to do next. As I like to say, to unconventional is to be strategic.

And how has this strategy worked so far? The Heat are 7 -1 and are leading the league in scoring. The season is not over yet, and what really matters is if this strategy translates into Championships. But still, I thought it was worth highlighting some innovation lessons from their approach. Hope you liked it 🙂

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