Dan Seewald

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A Lateral Thinking Exercise: Reinventing America’s Pastime

The Story

On May 8, 1984, American baseball made the record books. The Milwaukee Brewers faced the Chicago White Sox in a classic duel that would end 7-6 after a walk-off home run from a White Sox all-star, Harold Baines. But what made this game memorable was not the last moment heroics. It was its duration.


8 Hours and 6 Minutes. 26 Innings!


The game was an epic struggle that resembled a cricket match more than a baseball game -- the umpires had to suspend the game after a mere 18 innings and extend play until the next day.


The Situation

Even for baseball, an 8 hour game is an aberration. Nevertheless, the game that almost never ended became a useful metaphor for the overall sport. In 1984, baseball games were just taking too darn long. And they continue to carry on too long today. While the average length of a baseball game during this past Major League Baseball (MLB) season hovered around 3 hours – not so different from an NFL Football game – the speed of play and routine interruptions to the run of play, combined with the overall duration of the game, serves to create a generally languid affair. Even the length of the season, once thought of as a faithful companion during those dog days of summer, is now more of an annoying side kick that won’t leave your side.


But is this a real problem that requires problem solving and design thinking? To answer that question, let’s take a closer look at some sports popularity trends. According to a Gallup survey of American sports fans, the last time Baseball ranked ahead of football was in 1972. And in that same survey, not only did Football (37%) rank ahead of Baseball as the favorite sport, but Basketball (11%) had surpassed Baseball (9%) and even Soccer was catching up (7%). And while you may be inclined to scream out loud that this is merely correlation and not causation, the same survey revealed evidence that speed and length of a sports game do have direct influence over preference.


An Alternative Model For New Ideas

The argument that baseball needs to be shortened or hastened is not a new one. Google it. You will find dozens, if not hundreds, of articles and blog posts on this topic. But most of the ideas that have been proposed to date have been fairly safe, pedestrian and generally incremental. Why is that? It’s because our brains are wired to lean toward the familiar and follow existing patterns of thinking. Our brains are wired to make safe bets even when there is a dire need to completely disrupt the existing model. The only way to break this pattern of thinking is to move laterally, so we can leap out of these patterns of thinking. To do this, we use a technique in the that was invented in the 1970's by a creativity researcher, Edward De Bono, and is referred to as lateral thinking. Or as I like to refer to it, the power of provocation. Provocation pushes us to make a statement that may seem illogical or might contradict known experience, and then we use that provocative statement as a stepping stone to spark a new and fresh idea. In the case of the MLB, they need some help to deliberately leap out of their rivers of thinking.


Applying Lateral Thinking to Our Baseball Problem

Let’s see how we can apply this approach to our baseball problem. There are three steps:


Step 1: We list out the basic truths surrounding our problem. The more fundamental and universal, the better. In the case of MLB game duration, there are many basic truths.

A baseball season lasts for 9 months.

A baseball game is played between two teams.

Baseball moves at a relaxed pace.

Baseball games are not time bound.

And on and on we can go with the generally accepted truths or clichés.


Step 2: We select one of these truths and propose a provocative question. This is where the magic can happen - if done well. And remember, the more wild and provocative the question, the greater the chance that we will push ourselves out of our conventional wisdom and fixed mindset. Sometimes the first question may be so wild it seems impossible. Even absurd. This can be off-putting for someone who is trained and logical. Furthermore, we must also resist the temptation to make the question an obvious solution. The intention is to ask a question that can spawn many non-obvious solutions. I selected as a basic truth:


Baseball games are not time bound.

And here are a few provocations that I came up with:

What if MLB games had to finish in 1 hour or less?

What if MLB games were 1 inning long?

What if MLB games can only continue if fans pay attention?

What if every play/transition in an MLB game had a time limit?


Step 3: Now that we produced a set of absurd and seemingly improbably questions, we make it our job to find the possibility within the provocation. To do this, we ask ourselves, “How might we make this wild question really work?” This will spark some starter thoughts which is the start to the Ideation process.


The BIG Idea

So you may be wondering, does this really work? To answer this question, allow me to share what I came up with when I got to ideating on this problem.

I started with the last provocative question, which was:


What if every play/transition in an MLB game had a time limit?

It does sound ridiculous on the face of it. But this question prompted me to search the realms of possibility outside the world of baseball. And to make this possible, I thought What if you used a shot clock with both the pitcher and the batter. MLB could institute a couple of timed sequences with the shot clock shown up on the scoreboard and even in a couple of strategic locations near the field of play. Often the time in between pitches can be very protracted, which slows the overall pace of the game down. Introducing a shot clock in between pitches, batters and even innings could hasten the game. And though the overall length of the game might not dramatically decrease but the pace of the game might. And this could have significant implications for the popularity and level of interest in the sport of baseball from the current generation of youth.


Now if this sounds a bit impractical but look no farther than a few other sports. Basketball at one time allowed for untimed possessions which led to incredibly slow, low-scoring affairs. One game played between the Fort Wayne Pistons and the Minneapolis Lakers finished with a score of 19-18 and a total of only eight baskets. And then in 1954, the NBA introduced the shot-clock. This new dynamic altered not only the speed of the game but has also been considered one of the major contributing factors to Basketball’s rising popularity over the ensuing decades. And it’s not just Basketball. Tennis recently instituted a new rule that requires each player to serve within 25 seconds. And if you look around you’ll see that this exists is various other sports, including: Chess, Snooker and even Ten-Pin Bowling!

So what’s the takeaway? The shot clock concept is raw and needs further refinement and testing. But if you want to change that game, you need to change way you think. Using Lateral Thinking is a powerful way to push ourselves out of our fixed mindset and produce new ways of solving the most complex and stubborn problems.


Here’s a Challenge For You:

Think about a sport or pastime that you enjoy doing. Now think about the one or two things that most annoy you about that pastime. Take that problem and try applying the three step approach of lateral thinking to that pet peeve of yours. I am eager to hear what problems , conventions and provocative questions you come up with. And if you’re really ambitious, try and see if you can complete the 3rd step and find a way to find a starter thought that brings your provocation to life.

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