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Innovation & Disruption: Lessons from the Sports & Fashion World

Published By Team AdaptiveWork

Sports and fashion are not always regarded as the best proving grounds for business models and new approaches, but sometimes they can be the perfect petri dish for innovation and disruption. The belief is that talent always wins, but in many cases, teams and companies can overcome a deficiency with an emphasis on ingenuity and improved collaboration; inherent advantages do not always guarantee success either.

The New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers are prime examples of NBA teams with plenty of history and prestige who have fallen on hard times due to complacency, toxic cultures, and poor management. In the business world, Uber had to go through its own growing pains when it was obvious the culture and communication issues plaguing the company were going to keep it from ever reaching its full potential, and the co-founder/CEO was promptly replaced. Here are some recent cases that demonstrate how collaboration and digital innovation can help propel organizations forward.

Mark Cuban Innovates to a Title

The Dallas Mavericks were a moribund organization when tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban purchased the team in 2000. They hadn’t had a winning season in 10 years and were considered a place where playing careers went to die. Fans had given up on the franchise, leading to low attendance and lower revenues. Cuban approached the team like it was a startup and emphasized digital innovation, focusing on high-level KPIs such as customer service, fan experience, employee/player satisfaction, and advanced basketball analytics. According to experts, “the organization put faith in analytics way before most,” and within a year, the team saw dramatic results on the court and at the box office, starting a decade plus of victories and sell-outs. Cuban also upgraded player amenities, focused on increased communication and collaboration among both the team operations and business units, and made sure everyone was on the same page up and down the org chart. As a result, free agents began looking at Dallas as a destination as opposed to a dead-end. The analytics team determined which lineups were most successful in specific situations, and they tended to defy expectations. The coaching staff listened to the data, giving the Mavs an edge over opponents who were expecting something totally different; this synergy helped propel the Mavs to the upper echelon of the league at a time when they were not the most talented team. Cuban has been at the forefront of the NBA’s modernization effort ever since, pushing the league to refresh itself constantly. Most importantly, his tactics won on the court, leading to an NBA championship in 2011 against the heavily-favored Miami Heat, where the Mavs “were one of the first teams to successfully bridge the massive gap between wonky numbers and on-court success,” proving that business methods and sports can successfully coexist.

Zara’s Fast Track to Success

Surprisingly, the recent growth and success of fast fashion companies has similar roots to the sports example above. These companies have disrupted the usual timeline of fashion trends and shortened the gap between ideation to retail by overemphasizing communication between everyone on the supply-chain. After years of trying to contend with established brands with deep pockets, fast fashion has allowed newer retailers to break in and compete for customers with lower costs and prices along with more responsive fashions, none of which would be possible without exceptional collaboration. Industry stalwarts such as Gap have felt the pressure and are seeing lackluster sales and closing stores while trying to compete; ironically, Gap’s lower-tier brand, Old Navy, has seen sales growth thanks to discounted prices, better margins, and the introduction of similar fast-fashion principles.

Spanish retailer Zara has been at the forefront of this trend. Instead of working ahead almost a year on upcoming lines, Zara is constantly churning out new products in a matter of months, sometimes weeks, and continuously answering customer demands, which are relayed directly from store employees. Zara tracks its advertising spend and inventory costs, similar to all retail outlets, but also the number of store visits per customer and the “buzz” around certain items. This could never happen without a disruptive mindset and an extremely responsive reporting structure. And all that customer feedback they gather? It’s digitally processed and sent on from store managers to market specialists and then designers. “While any company can use PDAs to communicate, Zara’s flat organization ensures that important conversations don’t fall through the bureaucratic cracks.” Zara has built out its IT advantage with capabilities built specifically for speed, agility, and efficiency.

Brooklyn’s Digital Renaissance

Recently, the Brooklyn Nets engineered a similar turnaround after years of being a laughingstock. They brought all of their basketball and business units to the same location, with CEO Brett Yormark believing that “with Brooklyn Nets business and basketball united under one roof, [they] will further build a collaborative work environment that encourages innovation and teamwork.” The Nets outfitted the offices with state-of-the-art conference room technology, collaborative lounges, a game room, and refueling pantries, typical of a tech company. On the basketball side of things, a minor-league team was purchased and moved just 25 miles away, with streamlined coaching, medical, training, and business units to ensure synergy between the teams, agility to make quick decisions, and a steady flow of incoming talent. Alignment became a priority for the entire company.

Just as important, the team formed a partnership with cloud software company Infor to assist with team performance, fan experience, and team business operations. Infor developed a digital hub specifically designed by data scientists to help the team’s basketball operations. By analyzing “data captured by the Nets on-court performance as well as the team’s travel information, training activity, and other performance data,” the hub provided actionable insights and enhanced data visualization, “further unifying all of Basketball Operations, including players, coaches, training and medical staff, and the analytics team.”“This collaboration will provide efficient and strategic solutions in real time for Nets Basketball Operations. The new digital platform that Infor is building will improve the way in which we work, communicate and make decisions across the organization both on and off the court.”Sean Marks, Nets General Manager

In just 2 seasons, the Nets greatly improved their level of play, going from 20 wins to 42, without many tangible assets such as draft picks or high-level free agents. They found undervalued talent and castoffs from other teams, such as D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, and maximized their capabilities through a player-focused, team-first approach that preached team culture over individual success. They also emphasized three-point shooting, rest management, and player development based on the data they captured. In the end, they rejuvenated their fanbase, leading to a 22% increase in TV viewership and increased ticket sales during their first playoff push in years, none of which would have been possible without increased digital resources and an emphasis on innovation and collaboration.   

Back to Business

Business leaders can learn a lot from Mark Cuban’s revival of the Mavs, the Nets software revolution, and Zara’s fast-fashion rise in the retail industry. All of these organizations created an environment conducive to innovation and teamwork, focused on synergy across the org chart, and used technology to beat their competition when resources alone were not enough. Analytics and software played a critical role, allowing leadership to use high-level KPIs to track their progress. These systems have been implemented to take advantage of all available data while harnessing any and all useful assets to maximize results.

As can be seen in these examples, new software and technology is constantly coming online that make it easier than ever to find data, but a human touch is still required to synthesize the results and draw meaningful conclusions. Managers need to push innovation to the forefront of every conversation, focusing on agility and creativity, in order to see the next steps with well-informed insight. Ultimately, any business, whether sports, fashion, marketing, or tech, needs collaboration to function at the highest levels, and the tools to give its employees every opportunity to succeed.


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Written by Team AdaptiveWork