What elite athletes and visionary retailers have in common

Image of basketball player doing a slam dunk
Great athletes (and retailers) don’t see other players, they see the space between players. Photo: Bigstock

I see the game differently than some guys. I’m always reading the next move.

– Draymond Green

“He just sees the game differently”. This headline jumped out at me, not because elite competitive sport is often a strong metaphor for business, but because this statement about a professional sportsperson could easily be said of the greatest in business.

What defines the X factor in business, the Kogans, Molnars, Bezoses, Bransons of this world is not doing it smarter, faster or even in a more clever way. That helps of course, but what really defines this individual is that they zig when others zag.

They don’t see the other players to continue the sporting metaphor, they see the space between the players.

Thus, real strategy is born of those that see the game differently, not of the tactical process improvement or even the differentiation from competitive perspectives, rather the people who see the world of business not as a chess board as much as a bus stop six stops further down the road than most.

In thinking about these people, and in particular, some examples of people who have seen the game differently in retail over the years. This illustrious list includes people such as:

  • Hayley Barna & Katia Beauchamp, co-founders of Birchbox: changed how we discover and obtain beauty products
  • Jeff Bezos, founder & CEO of Amazon: changed how we buy products online and how quickly they are delivered
  • Neil Blumenthal, David Gilboa, Andrew Hunt & Jeffrey Raider, founders of Warby Parker: changed what we pay for designer glasses by cutting out the middleman
  • Sergey Brin & Larry Page, founders of Google: changed how we search
  • Jennifer Fleiss & Jennifer Hyman, co-founders of Rent the Runway: changed online dress retail by allowing customers to rent apparel instead of buy it
  • Ingvar Kamprad, founder of Ikea: changed our furniture shopping experience
  • Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay: changed consumer-to-consumer sales online
  • Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba: saw the intersection of technology driving consumption
  • Frank Lowy, founder of Westfield shopping centres

There are plenty more examples of these people who see the game differently, and much has been written about their character, vision, resilience, commitment, drive, focus and so on, but it’s more than that.

Read about the factors that separate us – intellect, creativity, perseverance, curiosity, etc – and nothing especially stands out, with perhaps one qualifying feature being the contemplation and talent to find the ‘aha moment’. 

Recognise the ‘aha’ moments because they are often the genesis of real game-changing strategy and innovation.

We progress not from seeing the game in the same way, rather in seeing the game differently. It’s just that simply put.

Brian Walker is founder and CEO of Retail Doctor Group, a retail advisory and consultancy group and the Australian elected partner member of the global retail expert’s alliance Ebeltoft Group.