I’m passionate about innovation. I’m passionate about sport, particularly football – sorry, I should say soccer for a predominantly US audience. I also love sporting analogies and the use of sporting aphorisms in business. For example, when somebody says, “step up to the plate”, or “it’s a slam dunk”, the meaning is clear, even in countries where baseball and basketball aren’t played.
So why is innovation like soccer?
- There is a big role to play for disruptive innovation. Real Madrid in the 1950s; Brazil in 1970; the Johan Cruyff turn and Dutch “total football”; the current Barcelona team; all of these changed the way the game was played, and in most cases won big trophies. Apple and the iPod, mobile phones, the internet, numerous pharmaceuticals – all of these have disrupted and created markets and are famous in their own right.
- However most goals are scored and most games are won with simple, well-practiced and instinctive play. In other words, most business growth comes from incremental innovation, looking after the core business.
- It’s a team game. Innovation is a contact sport that is driven by people who work well together. In companies where innovation is successful, there is strong leadership, talented people, intensive training, no complacency and a laser-like focus on results. It’s the same with soccer. The attention may often be on the big names, like Steve Jobs and Lionel Messi, but they are nothing without their teams.
- The best teams are highly organized, but flexible. They play to a system, but not a rigid one that stifles individual creativity and initiative. They put people in the right positions. They tolerate the right kind of failure. They know their competition and their market place.
- Finally, there’s a chance for everybody, it’s not a guaranteed outcome. Get it right on the day – or in the market place – and you can win.
I believe we can learn a lot about innovation by looking at analogous situations, and sport, particularly soccer, is a great place to look. I’ll leave you with a quote from the famous French writer and philosopher Albert Camus – “all that I know surely about morality and the obligations of man, I owe to football”. If Camus can derive analogies about morality from soccer, I’m comfortable using it for innovation.
Kevin McFarthing runs the Innovation Fixer consultancy, helping companies to improve the output and efficiency of their innovation, and to implement Open Innovation. He
spent 17 years with Reckitt Benckiser in innovation leadership positions, and also has experience in life sciences.