Improvement vs. Innovation

With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sidelined by an ankle injury, boldly inserting rookie Magic Johnson into the line up was just the improvement that the Lakers needed to win the 1980 NBA Finals.
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Growth comes in two forms: improvement or innovation.

Improvement is the process of accumulating marginal (or incremental) gains. One percent learnings, or ‘1%-ers’, as I like to call them.

As a young coach (or player), it’s easy to make big leaps in improvement. The learning curve is steep. And, if you’re hungry, growth can come quickly.

Things change, though. Once you’ve been working your craft for awhile, improvement often appears in not-so-obvious moments. A tweak here and there. A rephrase now and then. Or, a subtle pause that replaces a – younger-version-of-yourself – thoughtless reaction.

The other option? You can set out to innovate.

Innovation involves dramatic change. Risk. Challenging the status quo. It’s about committing to new methods, ideas, or techniques. When you dig up the Latin roots of the word, innovation literally means “in a new way.”

If you want to innovate, you have to be willing to stick your neck out. The upside to innovation is big. So is the downside (…!).

Improvement ≠ Innovation

Here’s how Patrick Lefler expresses the difference:

“Innovation does include improvement—it has to, but improvement is just a small part. Innovation is much more. Innovation is about creating that breakaway differentiation.”

That difference is your competitive advantage.

When Apple introduced the first iPod in 2001, they changed the music listening habits of people worldwide. It was a game changer (not seen in the industry since Sony launched the first Walkman in the late 70s).

That was innovation. When their competitors raced to match their offering, what they did was an improvement (and a smart business strategy!).

Any improvement that gets you up to speed with an industry standard is not innovation. That’s called “playing catch up.”

I like how Tom Vander Ark sums it up: “Improvement is doing things better. Innovation is doing things differently.

A well-coached team does both.

Great teams improve themselves by stacking up small incremental gains; while also seeking out a competitive advantage that comes from innovating.

What does all of this mean for you?

As a coach, you can improve in your stuff (i.e. technical/tactical) or you can improve how you teach. The question is: When you say you’ve improved, which is it?

Coaches spend countless hours studying offenses, defenses, out of bounds plays, presses, zone offenses, shooting and dribbling drills, etc. Most coaching clinics spoon feed you ideas on how to improve your stuff.

Where do you go to find ways to improve – or innovate – in how you teach? 

Improvement typical starts with a focus on the WHAT and HOW. Innovation is anchored in the WHO and WHY.

Innovation is your real – and only sustainable – competitive advantage.