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Volume 20 No. 42
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Creativity can become differentiator in both business, sports

In a recent survey, 1,500 of America’s top CEOs cited “creativity” as the single most important leadership competency of the future. Creativity. Not math, science, educational pedigree or good old fashioned work ethic. So why do these giants of business believe the imagineers will inherit the earth?

I suppose it’s not a huge surprise. “Thinking Different” has made Apple the most famous and the most valuable company in the world. Barack Obama became president of the most powerful country on the planet through creative campaign marketing tactics. And Hollywood continues to thrive as the economy plummets, simply by mastering the art of creative storytelling.

But is there a place for creativity in sports? Haven’t the games we play always been about strength, agility, speed, sweat, endless preparation and a lifetime of training? Yes — but in these ultra-competitive times, when parents have their kids commit to and specialize in a single sport by age 10, all these attributes have simply become table stakes.

So what will separate the good from the great? The memorable from the legendary? I think the best athletes and coaches of the future will also be the most creative — original thinkers who can create new ways to outsmart their opponents. So let’s look back at the five most creative sports performances of all time, along with their modern business equivalents.

5. General manager Billy Beane’s 2002 Oakland Athletics had exactly one-third the total salary of teams like the New York Yankees. So Beane got creative. He re-evaluated the strategies that produce wins on the field. He used a sophisticated sabermetric approach toward scouting and analyzing undervalued players. This was an unheard-of idea; totally fresh thinking. And in a stats-crazy sport, nobody has ever more creatively and successfully worked the numbers, the math and the algorithms. The result was an American League-record 20 consecutive wins, a trip to the postseason and, of course, a Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt as Beane.

Creative Business Equivalent: Google: Speaking of working algorithms to unheard-of success … .

4. In Game 4 of the 1980 NBA Finals, Julius Erving beats the Lakers’ Mark Landsberger baseline and takes off toward the rim. Awaiting him up there is 7-foot-2 center Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Stuck in midair, “Dr. J” cannot get to the basket — so he keeps floating, ducking his head to avoid smacking it into the backboard. He is now entirely behind the glass, and he keeps floating all the way to the opposite side of the rim. He then swings his fully extended right arm all the way across his body, flips the ball gently off the glass, and it drops in without touching iron. The Los Angeles crowd is stunned, and the Sixers go on to beat the Lakers, 105-102. This is creativity on the fly, literally — thinking quick and making it up as it happens.

Creative Business Equivalent: Twitter: Make it fast (140 characters) and of the moment (it’s old news in 2 minutes).

Princeton went old-school in its creativity in 1996 and found success, just as the website Craigslist has.
3. In the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament, the Princeton Tigers believed in miracles. They were the 13th seed against No. 4-seeded UCLA, the defending national champions, so they did the only thing they could do: They slowed it down. Way down. The Tigers just ran back-door cut after back-door cut until they got an open layup, and they had the patience to do this for an entire game. Oh, it was ugly. And shameless. And brilliant. In the end, Princeton pulled off the biggest upset in college basketball history, beating UCLA 43-41 on Gabe Lewullis’ back-door layup with 2 seconds left. That’s creativity in a patient, boring, old-school kind of way. Ugly, but effective as hell.

Creative Business Equivalent: Craigslist: The most unpleasant looking, boring and archaic site on the Web that continues to kick the competition’s ass.

2. On Oct. 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali invented the rope-a-dope. It happened during the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire. Ali was a huge underdog against the bigger, stronger, scarier George Foreman. True to form, Foreman came out swinging hard, and it looked like Ali had no chance. He was backed up against the ropes throughout much of the fight taking power blows from Foreman. But it was all part of Ali’s genius, creative plan: Tick off big George, then lie against the ropes and play possum. Allow Foreman to waste all his energy angrily swinging away, as the elasticity of the ropes absorb most of the force of each punch. When Foreman got tired and left himself open, the well-rested Ali launched into a vicious counterattack that left Foreman on his back, knocked out cold.

Creative Business Equivalent: Spotify: This Swedish music streaming service recently pulled a rope-a-dope of its own. It played possum in Europe, pretending to be a small, regional player, then — bam! — it signed an exclusive partnership with Facebook and its 800 million members, becoming the first real digital music threat to heavyweight champ iTunes.

1. The Boise State Broncos’ improbable 43-42 overtime victory over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl is by far the most creative performance in the history of sports. Not one, not two, but three absurdly creative plays down the stretch ensured this honor. Down by seven with 18 seconds in the game, the Broncos pull off a crazy, 50-yard “hook-and-ladder” play to tie the score at 35. They go back into their bag of creative tricks in overtime, as they confuse the Sooners’ defense with a direct snap to wide receiver Vinny Perretta, who sprints right like he’s going to run but instead throws a touchdown pass. The final, most outrageously creative call comes when Boise State coach Chris Petersen elects to go for a game-winning two-point conversion instead of a tying extra point. And we all remember the legendary Statue of Liberty play that followed. Classic creative ideation, over and over and over again. Impossible to defend. The Broncos were so damn creative in this game that it was almost unfair.

Creative Business Equivalent: Apple: The most creative company in the world just keeps coming at you with ingenious ideas. As if the iPod and iTunes weren’t good enough, they bring out the iPhone. Then, in overtime, they pull out the iPad just for good measure. Game over.

Tor Myhren is president and chief creative officer at Grey New York.