World Cup Innovation

World Cup InnovationAlthough World Cup football/soccer fever has dissipated in the United States after our team’s loss to Belgium in the Round of 16, the rest of the world continues to be enthralled by the World Cup tournament in Brazil.  As I watched the matches over the last few weeks, I found myself thinking about how innovation practitioners could benefit from examining their work efforts using examples from soccer.  From the start to the end of a match, soccer is rife with lessons learned for the innovator.

Set Piece – This is a play that occurs when a team has a free kick (after a penalty) or a corner kick after the opponent sends the ball past its own end line in trying to defend its goal.  A team will typically have numerous set pieces defined in practice then will execute them during the game.  In the Round of 16 match between France and Nigeria, the French team scored both of its goals on set pieces from corner kicks.  On two occasions, the French started their corner kick play the same way, with a tap to a nearby player instead of a booming cross, but on the second play the attacker pretended to head away from the goal then quickly turned and raced into the goal area, which lead to an effective cross and an own-goal by Nigeria.

Innovation Lesson – When an innovation leader is preparing for a session with colleagues or clients, he or she should have a number of “set pieces” at the ready to facilitate various parts of the discussion.  For instance, the leader should have a set piece for cases where the discussion gets sidetracked (e.g. down the rabbit hole) or where there is a lot of silence and the leader is having trouble getting participants to speak up and voice their contributions to the session.  These set pieces often need to be exceptionally creative to keep the audience engaged and, just like France did against Nigeria, the innovation leader may want to hint at taking a conversation in one direction then abruptly switch to keep the audience on its toes.

Counter-Attack – This occurs when a team is defending its goal against the opponent but is able to steal the ball and rushes back up the field, trying to seize the advantage while most of the opponent’s players were downfield in attack mode and not defending their goal.  Brazil’s national team is exceptionally good at the counter-attack.

Innovation Lesson – If an innovation team is struggling to come up with a new product or service, one area to consider would be to counter-attack a competitor’s area of strength.  Just when one’s own company seems the most vulnerable, an innovator can strike back at the heart of the competitor’s attack and, sometimes, find success.

Kicking Backwards to go Forward – This occurs frequently in soccer when a team will be trying to advance the ball up one side of the field but runs into opposition and becomes concerned they will lose possession of the ball, so they turn around and kick the ball back to a player behind them, sometimes even to their own goalie who then can reset the play and send the ball to another, more open player, to advance up the field.  Germany’s possession-oriented, methodical approach to managing the game takes advantage of this technique as much or more than any of the other semi-finalists in the tournament.

Innovation Lesson – This innovation lesson runs contrary to the counter-attack but is also a valuable component in one’s innovation toolset.  In an innovation session, a leader might try to push a team to focus on attacking one particular area of opportunity repeatedly but might not be successful.  After repeated failed attempts, the leader may want to consider backing out of that approach and trying a different tactic to address that area of inquiry.

Celebrate a Goal – Because there are so few goals in a typical soccer match, the celebration that occurs when a player scores a goal is dramatic, often involving the entire team.  It never ceases to amaze me how many soccer matches end with a score of 1-0, which shows just how valuable a single goal can be.  Some players have unique styles of celebration, but the duration and intensity of these moments surpasses those of many other sports.

Innovation Lesson – For the vast majority of innovation teams, my assumption is that a lot of work results in a relatively small number of innovations.  This is not due to the lack of skill on the part of the participants but, rather, is related to the incredible complexity of the driving innovation across complex organizations.  After all, if innovations were easy to generate, they probably would not be considered “innovative” and would be viewed as basic insights.  With this in mind, the innovator should celebrate successful innovation efforts in the same way that a soccer player celebrates a single goal.  It may be a while before an innovation team sees another win, so to maximize positive reinforcement mechanisms the team should celebrate intensely when they are successful.

Give and Go – This is the most prevalent play in soccer, in which one player passes the ball to a teammate and immediately sprints forward to receive a pass back from that same player, who usually just touches the ball (the “touch pass”) to return it to his teammate.  The reason this play works is because the defender reacts to the pass and tends to ignore the player who kicked the ball, only to find that the ball ends up back at the first player who races forward with a head of steam.

Innovation Lesson – An innovation leader should have a partner lined up in a workshop who can help drive home a point in a discussion using a “give and go” mechanism in which the leader tees up a concept, hands it off to another workshop participant, then swoops back in to pick up the idea and take it forward.

Head Instead of Hands – Other than goalies, soccer players must remember not to use their hands while on the field, even to the point where a ball flying towards them at chest level must be trapped with the chest, headed with the forehead, or avoided altogether.  Since hands are so critical to everyday life for the typical person, this behavior is indeed counter-intuitive.

Innovation Lesson – One of the many definitions of innovation is thinking about old things in a new way.  After all, if we kept thinking about things the same way over and over, we’d be unlikely to come up with new ideas and new ways of thinking.  One mechanism to drive new thinking is the use of counter-intuitive scenarios.  Just as in soccer the player must think about using his head or chest instead of hands to direct the ball, an innovation leader should think about how to get his or her workshop participants to think outside their comfort zones to stimulate fresh, new thinking.

Stoppage Time – At the end of each period of play the referee adds stoppage time to the game, representing time where the game clock was running but play was stopped due to injury or penalty.  This ensures that the amount of action in a game is consistent whether there were a lot of times where the game was stopped (a game with a lot of injuries) or only a few times.  While the fact that no one on the field truly knows the exact time the game will end, I have found this element to add to the intensity and excitement of the match.

Innovation Lesson – In previous writings I have addressed the importance of set schedules for sessions to ensure the participants are focused on the discussion rather than other compelling needs, such as when the next break will be.  However, despite the best intentions and plans of the innovation leader, it is sometimes difficult to ensure sufficient time is devoted to various topics.  As such, the leader, like the soccer Referee, should keep track of where diversions had led to a short-changing of various topics to ensure that by the end of the session all the key topics have been addressed, even if it means extra time is needed.

Water Break – In some of the games in Brazil, despite the fact that the tournament occurred in the Southern Hemispheric winter, the referees stopped the match for water breaks when the temperature and humidity exceeded a certain point.  Soccer players are some of the best-conditioned athletes in the world and individual tracking data shows that they can run the equivalent of a 10K road race during the course of a soccer match.  Yet even these great athletes have their limits, so the forced water breaks, while resulting in a brief stoppage in intensity of play, nonetheless proved critical to ensuring the highest level of competition in the match.

Innovation Lesson – Even the most energetic and focused participants in an innovation session need a break.  The debate for the innovation leader is whether to adhere to a fixed schedule for these breaks (using objective criteria such as a certain amount of time or reaching a certain topic….similar to the temperature and humidity readings in the World Cup), or subjective criteria based on how the leader senses the workshop is progressing against its goals.  My preference is to stick to a specific timeline, with some discretion left for a leader who wants to go past a certain stopping point to allow a team to complete a particularly important discussion on a topic.

Position of “Striker” – Besides the Goalie, perhaps the most prominent position on a soccer team is that of the Striker.  This moniker is appropriate given the Striker’s penchant for fast attacks on the opponent’s goal and aggressive moves.

Innovation Lesson – There are two potential lessons from the concept of the Striker for the innovator.  First, an innovation team may want to have a person who plays the role of the Striker in the workshop, aggressively pursuing ideas and pushing the team forward relentlessly.  Second, in coming up with names for innovation efforts, consideration should be given to naming the effort to match the actions it is taking.  For example, a project to clean up, standardize, and simplify a large data set of customer information named “Customer Master Data 2014” will have less impact that “Data Accelerator 2014.”

Yellow Card – The Referee can award a Yellow Card to a player who commits multiple fouls in a game or one particularly egregious foul.  The beauty of the Yellow Card is that it serves as a warning to the player to “cool off” or face a second Yellow Card, which results in a Red Card and immediate expulsion from the match (as well as the next match).  A Yellow Card two games in a row also results in an expulsion from the next match.

Innovation Lesson – Something like a yellow card would be a useful tool for facilitating an innovation session, particularly when one participant engages in behavior that proves deleterious to the continued progress of the session.  A yellow card would be a fun, light-hearted way of giving that person a warning while maintaining the positive mood of the session.

Vanishing Spray Paint – In the 2014 World Cup some of the Referees are using small cans of vanishing spray paint to mark lines for penalty kicks. When there is a penalty kick in the field (outside of the penalty box), the Referee paces off 10 yards from the spot of the kick to the location where the defending team can set up a wall of players to block the kicker’s direct route to the goal.  In the past, the Referee would mark this spot but the players could slowly move towards the kicker in a sly manner as the Referee walked away.  Armed with vanishing spray, Referees now mark a line where the blockers can stand, which eliminates their ability to sneak forward.  Although the spray has been used in the US and Canada before, 2014 marks its first introduction into World Cup play.

Innovation Lesson – The US and Canada are often viewed as inferior to Europe and South America from a Soccer standpoint.  The best players in the world rarely play in the US Major Soccer League.  However, that did not prevent the innovation of vanishing spray paint from emerging in the US/Canada marketplace and ultimately making its way onto the world stage in the 2014 World Cup.  This serves as a reminder that innovation can come from the most unlikely places, and even areas of a company or organization that receive little attention or under-perform may still be a good source of new ideas.

Shootout to Decide Ending – Several of the games in the knockout round of this Work Cup have been decided by Penalty Kicks, in which each side gets 5 shots on goal from close range in an attempt to determine a winner after 90 minutes of regular play plus 30 minutes of extra time have resulted in a tied score.  The penalty kicks are exciting to watch and quite useful in ferreting out a winner.

Innovation Lesson – While we hope that the result of a discussion on an innovation topic results in consensus with every member of an innovation team one-hundred percent in agreement on how to proceed, it is likely that innovation practitioners will find themselves faced with a divided team, with some favoring one approach while others favor a different approach.  The same can also happen when a team is ranking ideas in order to prioritize follow-up efforts around a particular concept.  In these cases, the innovation leader may want to rely on a tie-breaking mechanism just as is used in soccer to decide the final outcome.  It may not make sense for the workshop participants to head outdoors to find the nearest soccer field and lace up cleats for a shootout, some form of resolution, defined in advance of the workshop, might be nice to have.  An example could be the involvement of a Senior Executive as someone who can cast the tie-breaking vote, or a more complex scoring system that could further differentiate the ideas under consideration.

Friendly at the End – One surprising aspect of World Cup play is the extent to which the competitors are amicable with each other at the end of the match no matter what the outcome or how intense the play on the field has been.  This may be due to the fact that a lot of the players are teammates on elite professional teams in Europe or elsewhere, and may also be due to the fact that in the run-up to the World Cup the national teams play a lot of preparatory matches against each other.  In fact, these matchers are referred to as “friendlies.”

Innovation Lesson – A final reminder for any innovation leader is that no matter how heated the discussion in the workshop becomes, it is important for the participants to arrive as friends and depart as friends, just as occurs in soccer matches.  Some participants may be particularly passionate about their ideas in a session and may find themselves in intense conflict with other participants who are equally vociferous about another approach.  However, in the end, the innovation leader will need the help of all of the participants to help push an idea forward to see it implemented as a new process, product, or service, and he or she cannot afford to lose the support of anyone on the team, as we all know that implementation is often the most difficult aspect of an innovation project.

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden is a Project Executive, Innovation Program Leader at IBM Global Services.

Scott Bowden

Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.




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