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When Everyone Is Headed In the Same Direction, Look the Other Way

When Michael Jordan clinched his first NBA championship, teams averaged 7.1 three-point attempts per game. Fast forward to today and the average NBA team is taking nearly 35 three-point shots a game. Even the team that shoots the fewest amount of threes per game averaged nearly 29 attempts, four times as many as their Jordan-year counterparts.

Basketball has fundamentally changed. Largely thanks to a data revolution that said, “Why are we taking all of these mid-range two-point shots that are only marginally more accurate than a shot a few feet behind that gives us a whole extra point!” The data revolution pointed to a glaring mistake, an undervaluing the three ball. Now every team plays the same way.

A number of years ago, writer Derek Thompson outlined what he called The Shazam Effect. Thanks to the ability to track downloads, listens, and a slew of other data on what people were listening to, record companies could ‘predict’ what tunes we would find appealing.

The end result? Everything sounds the same. Popular music converged on a narrow slice of familiar sounds, repeated endlessly, with only minor variations.

The same phenomenon occurs in the sport I love dearly, running. A few decades ago, you could look at the training logs of the best runners in the world and they would be wildly different. The New Zealand medalists were running lots and lots of miles, while the Hungarian record-holders were running intervals on the track every day without a long run in sight. Now, glance at just about any elite runner in the world, and all of their training logs look remarkably similar.

As we gain better data and understanding, we tend to converge on an ‘optimal’ way of doing things, at least for the moment. There’s a downside to playing that game, though: you have to do the same thing better than everyone else at the same thing they are doing. If you want to be a pop star, you’ve got to play the same endless loops that everyone else is, only better.

Does that mean we’re doomed for all industries to turn into the top-40 playlist of the same-sounding song on repeat?

Not necessarily, because as soon as everyone starts converging on the same optimal, a new gap opens for innovation. If everyone is all headed in the same direction, that’s a signal to pause, and look in the other direction. No, maybe you won’t head all the way back to the Jordan years where big men and dunks dominated. But it’s a sign that the next innovation, the next step forward, requires you to deviate from where everyone else is headed.

— Steve

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