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Uncertainty, Innovation and the Education of the Miami Heat

The Leadership Game is a new, recurrent feature about leadership lessons from the world of sports.


Uncertainty has been a recurrent theme in the past year. The Federal government has had 3 near miss brushes with shutdown, and state and local governments have resorted to furloughs to meet budget shortfalls.

Government is designed to operate deliberately and continuously, and rightly so; nobody is calling for mail delivery on random days or water that is safe to drink most of the time. The volatility of work stoppages disrupts continuity, leaving low morale and bureaucratic paralysis in its wake. It’s no surprise that as shutdowns fears mount, employees might turn apathetic and ask the question: “What should I do with my unplanned vacation?”

Eric Spoelstra, coach of the Miami Heat was faced with just such a question during the NBA lockout. The Heat had just lost the NBA title by 2 games, and they were returning a nucleus of superstars. Spoelstra led a high performing organization by any metric except their own outsized expectations. But rather than tweaking at the margins with incremental change, Spoelstra decided to do something else entirely: innovate boldly.

“The No. 1 thing I was trying to do was learn,” said Spoelstra,”I had a lot of time on my hands and I didn’t just want to sit there.”

Spoelstra embarked on a quest to identify new and innovative concepts to leverage the Heat’s unique roster. That quest led him to Eugene, Oregon, observing the University of Oregon’s dynamic football team. This ESPN profile details Spoelstra’s quest; here are some highlights to pique your interest:

Spoelstra evaluated his talent and determined that his deliberate, structured style was holding back the talents of his best players. By infusing the offense with dynamism and a relentless drive to attack, Spoelstra freed his stars to be themselves.

“The more that we’ve tried to think conventionally in terms of guys playing just a specific position, it restricted us a little bit,” Spoelstra said. “We can put pressure on teams to adjust to us.”

While the experiment is ongoing, initial results are encouraging: the Heat currently boast the league’s 2nd highest scoring offense (up from 8th), playing at the 2nd fastest pace (up from 20th) despite a series of nagging injuries to Dwayne Wade and Lebron James. Regardless of where you stand on the Heat taking their talents to South Beach, this story holds fascinating lessons about the role of coaching and innovation in maximizing those talents for organizational performance.

Dave Uejio is the President of Young Government Leaders, the professional association for aspiring government leaders. Join today at http://www.younggov.org.

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Hadn’t read that article but makes sense. The Heat felt like they were trying too hard last year and just weren’t gelling. Getting to finals is pretty good all things considered but for all that talent on the team, I know they hope for more.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

I thought for sure that clip was going to be Lebron throwing a pass the length of the court with Wade catching it and running into the end zone…er, I mean, out of bounds…and spiking it. 😉

Seriously, I think you can learn a lot from cross-discipline investigation. Stay with me for a minute – could he have gone and watched a documentary about the behavior of wolves or some other animal behavior to draw lessons? You bet. Could he have studied the machinery / processes at a manufacturing plant to get ideas for plays. Probably. There’s no end to our ability to innovate based on taking potentially unrelated topics and thinking of applications to our present environment.

Thanks for posting.

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