The traditional leather basketball came back officially this week. Which got me thinking about the controversy over what was supposed to be a new, improved, innovative ball. Spalding said it was better, but that doesn’t make it innovative. I see a couple of lessons here for anyone who is pushing IT-based innovation.
1. There was no clearly identified market for this “innovation.” Let’s say just for the sake of argument that the microfiber ball is everything it’s promoters claim it to be (some thoughts about that from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban here). Spalding, which has held the contract to manufacture NBA basketballs for decades, wanted to stop manufacturing leather balls, according to ESPN. Let’s say that this makes sense for Spalding. But as far as I can tell, it wasn’t driven by any notion that it would entice fans to fork over more money to the NBA. In this regard, the decision to deploy the new ball in the first place is a bit like Wal-Mart’s suppliers “deciding” to give RFID chips a go: there wasn’t any particular benefit to them, but an important business partner wanted them to do it so they did.
2. If it ain’t broken, you can’t fix it. Also, never take anyone’s tools without asking. For something to be accepted as an innovation, it has to be recognized in the eyes of its target customers to be an improvement over the status quo. However well the ball performed in tests, a lot of the players thought it was hard to use. Not only that, but they don’t think there’s anything wrong with the leather ball. The NBA made the big mistake of foisting the new ball on the players rather than building support for the change over time and, in particular, getting buy-in from the power users — the top stars.
3. Failure is part of the process. Just because the new ball flunked, that doesn’t mean that Spalding can’t come up with a ball the players will like. Provided they pay attention to the players’ criticisms of the ball’s performance.
If you were running this project, what would you have done differently? What would you do next?