What basketball tells us about the future of work

“Every company will go remote” predicts Chris Herd, CEO of Firstbase

“We’ll be back in the office 5-days a week” opines Alison Schrager on Bloomberg

Who’s right? Well, it’s hard to say because we are spectacularly bad at imagining what the future will be like.

If you disagree, then let me tell you about the beginnings of Basketball.

In 1891in Springfield, MA, PE instructor James Naismith invented basketball as a way to keep athletes fit during the winter.

He created the game by nailing two peach baskets to the lower rail of the balcony at either end of the gym. The aim was to throw a soccer-type ball into the opponents’ basket. When a basket was scored, there would be a wait for the janitor to come out with his ladder to retrieve the ball.

The game caught on and the baskets were replaced with the hoop and net that we are more familiar with today. Within 10 years it had spread across US colleges and had a professional league.

Now here is the interesting thing. Although the peach baskets had quickly been replaced with the hoop and net ‘basket’, it wasn’t until 1906 that someone had the bright idea of cutting a hole in the bottom of the net to allow the ball to fall through!

Until then, when each basket was scored the ball would have to be retrieved from the basket. All sorts of magnificent contraptions were invented to get the ball out of the net, with the last resort being the trusty step-ladder.

Why did it take so many people so long to arrive at a solution that we might describe as ‘perfectly bleeding obvious’?

Because they were locked into the original concept of a basket, and baskets have bottoms. They were simply unable to see beyond the original purpose of what had become ‘the net’.

It’s nuts, right? But as if that wasn’t enough, they had already cut a small hole in the bottom of the original peach baskets so they could use a stick to poke the ball out. They were SO close, yet they just couldn’t see it.

Presumably, when they changed it to a net they could still poke the ball out because the net is full of holes, right? Only small ones, like the one they put in the peach baskets.

That’s what I mean. We are so locked into our existing models of the world that we struggle to imagine anything beyond them. The only future we see is a development of today’s world. We can see a step forward but we can’t see a leap.

Consider how most organisations transitioned to working from home, they took the existing work patterns and transposed them onto digital platforms. In-person synchronous meetings moved to Zoom, quick chats moved to messaging platforms. Now we have ‘hybrid’, which is just a mix of pre- and during-pandemic work patterns. It’s a step, it’s not a leap.

The only thing for sure about predictions about the future of work is that they are all wrong. They always will be, because we haven’t realised yet that we need to cut the bottom of the net. 

We’re still thinking peach baskets, not basketball nets.

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