The future. The ball’s in your court.
Published: February 01, 2021

At times like this it may seem hard to plot a way forward. Another lockdown, the pandemic wreaking havoc, the economy heading in totally the wrong direction. You have two alternatives. Do your best ostrich impression and bury your head in the sand, hoping it will soon be over. Or, put your very best thinking cap on, and come up with a solution for you and your business.

To come up with something that’s going to work in the future, it can pay to examine the past. Take the case of Mr. James Naismith, a man who transformed the world of sport. There are three lessons we can learn from his story.

Clear brief.

It was a bleak mid-winter, 1891. The college students at Springfield College, Massachusetts were bored senseless. They couldn’t go out to play football due to the inclement weather. Instead they were faced with the prospect of dull exercises in the gym throughout the long winter months.

The Superintendent of the College was a man called Luther Halsey Gulick. His brief was a very simple one. He stressed the need for a new indoor game that would be “interesting, easy to learn, and easy to play in the winter and by artificial light.” That was the brief for the new physical education teacher, James Naismith.

Explore the past.

Mr Naismith then put his brain to work to see what he could do for his students. Naismith began by exploring other sports popular at the time. He looked at American rugby (which involved passing), English rugby (which included jumping), lacrosse (which had a goal), and a childhood game called duck on a rock (which involved a ball and a goal that couldn’t be rushed).

Once Naismith had thoroughly explored the games of the past, he turned his attention to the future. How to create a popular game, using some of the ideas that had previously worked to keep young people exercised in mind and body.


Naismith asked the school janitor for two boxes. The janitor returned with two peach baskets. Not what he had in mind. But Naismith decided to put a basket at each end of the gymnasium, ten feet from the ground, to create the targets teams would aim at. He then set about making up some rules. He created thirteen of these, including what constituted a foul, the method of moving the ball, how many players would be on a team, and how long the game would last.

A little later, the gym class met, and the teams were chosen with three centres, three forwards, and three guards per side. Two of the centres met at mid-court, Naismith tossed the ball, and the game of “basket ball” was born.

Mr Naismith’s idea turned out to be rather popular. Basketball, as it’s now called, is the third most popular sport in the world, with over two billion fans. The average NBA team is valued at over $2billion.

What lessons can we learn from Mr Naismith?

Firstly, start with a strong, clear brief. James Naismith was lucky to have an inspirational boss like Luther Gulick to create one for him. But what if you don’t have someone to do that for you? The answer it to write one. You can’t come up with a solution until you have a clear picture of the problem that needs solving. Don’t rush this part. The brief is a vital part of creating something relevant.

To go forwards you sometimes have to look backwards. That’s what Naismith did. He didn’t climb into a bath and wait for the eureka moment to arrive. He studied other sports to see what worked, what was popular, and where he could take inspiration. Look at what has worked for others. Read what different entrepreneurs have done. But don’t copy, adapt.

Have a brainwave. Easier said than done, I hear you say. But, if you’ve taken steps one and two, finding the breakthrough idea will be much easier. You know the problem facing you. You’ve looked at ideas that worked in the past for others. You and your team need to then put all your effort and imagination into developing an idea that works for your product or service, and that proves to be exciting for your customers and clients.

The future may not look too rosy right now. But the same could be said for James Naismith. How on earth do you keep a big group of restless students engaged through long winter months?

Now it’s your turn to shoot.