70:68 in the fifth set – the Isner vs. Mahut match at Wimbledon last week took well over eleven hours and was interrupted two days in a row when darkness broke in. What a spectacular tennis marathon. But how could it go so far?
Well, the basic reason was that the two players were serving too good to allow for any breaks. A perfect serve display with Isner hitting 112 aces and Mahut getting to 103 on the same counter. As long as everybody serves perfectly, no one is going to win.
This rule is actually valid for many (all?) sports: If both opponents play perfectly, there is no winner.
In baseball for example, a pitcher can throw a “perfect game” by allowing no opponent to get on base throughout the complete game. By definition it is not possible that both pitchers throw a “perfect game” in the same game, because that game would never end (Note: Anyway the probability for two pitchers in the same game to throw nine perfect innings even without extending the game to extra innings is very low given that there have only been 20 perfect games within the last 110 years. However, two of them came just last month, with Dallas Braden on May 9 and Roy Halladay on May 29. In addition, Armando Galarraga pitched a perfect game on June 2nd, but suffered from a blown call by the first base umpire).
In soccer, there are no goals if no team does any mistake. Take the Portugal vs. Brazil match at the World Cup (the day after Isner and Mahut finally finished their match): Two sides that were very well organized defensively resulting in no goals and one of the most boring matches at this year’s World Cup.
But what about the game you are in every day? Are you also going for the perfect defense? And how about your competitors?
Companies try to play it safe and managers feel the pressure not to make any mistakes anytime. The result is obvious: In times in which all market players use the same methods of market analysis, in times in which benchmarking is a popular tool, in times in which “Six Sigma” and comparable activities try to strive for process perfection and nearly zero mistakes – are you surprised that so many companies, brands and offerings are perceived as being exchangeable and meaningless by the customers?
A soccer game usually ends in a 0-0 draw when none of the teams is willing to take any risk, when no team goes for the unexpected, when no team tries to create a hole in the opponent’s perfect defense.
In the market place it’s the same. As long as everybody agrees on the results from market research and benchmarking studies as the sole basis for running a business, as long as reducing mistakes has a higher priority than making a real impact in the market, everybody will end up in a scoreless draw: A lot of effort but little gains.
Okay, but how to win against a “perfect defense”?
If you offensive patterns are what their “perfect” system is expecting, it won’t work, so the only way is to come up with something very different. Put aside the six sigma belts, the market research and benchmarking studies and bring in ideas based on a pretty old school approach: Your own perception and your own creativity.
You won’t be perfect from scratch and chances are that your opponents will score as soon as you concentrate on offense and creativity instead of solid defense, but if you want to win instead of reaching a dull draw, it is the only feasible approach. And let’s be honest: The first Apple iPhone was far from being a perfect product – but after two and a half years they sold more than 50 million units and released three better versions, having a huge impact on the market while the other players that also had all the technology available were too afraid of making mistakes to build a comparable product.
For hours, Isner and Mahut did not try to play things differently from usual. At the end of the third day, Isner was the lucky winner, but he dropped out of the tournament in the next match, physically exhausted, losing against lower ranked opponent Thiemo De Bakker. This time Isner only won 5 games – in the whole match.
The opposite approach was shown in 1989 by young Michael Chang at the round of 16 at Roland Garros, Paris, one of the other three Grand Slam tennis tournaments besides Wimbledon. When his opponent, the great Ivan Lendl, was down 4-3 and needed a break to bring the fifth set into overtime, Chang listened to his feelings and did something completely unexpected: He delivered an under-arm serve to Lendl who was so shocked he could only play a week return that was easy for Chang to convert. Lendl, the clear favorite in this match, did not come back. In the next game, he lost his service and thus lost the game by producing a double-fault. Chang tore down the perfect defense.
He then went on to the final where he met another huge favorite, Stefan Edberg from Sweden. Waiting for Edberg to serve, he got creative again and went a few steps closer towards the net, a position that makes a playing a good return virtually impossible. However, that approach wasn’t expected in Edberg’s perfect game pattern. He had no idea how to deal with it, got nervous, and served badly. Chang won the tournament with a 6-2 in the fifth set.