(My) Innovation Lessons from the World Cup…

Goooaaaaaal!!!!!!! The 2014 fútbol World Cup was a success in many ways. Highest goal average per game, German striker Klose beating the record of goals scored over several world cups, highest average number of passes per game, record score in a semi-final (7-1)…

However, like in any competitive environment, successes come along with failures and tragedies. What can you take away from the 2014 World Cup and apply to your business to bolster your innovation efforts?

  • Your leader on the field must take responsibility and be accountable. Thiago Silva from Brazil – allegedly the world’s best defender before the world cup – failed miserably. From refusing to be part of the penalty shootout in the quarter-final game against Chile because he could not handle the pressure, to receiving a second yellow car on a stupid foul that kept him out of the tragic and pathetic semi-final match against Germany, Silva showed that if you don’t take your responsibilities and live up to your promises as a leader, repercussions on the team can be disastrous.
  • You cannot just hope for the best and wait for (good) things to happen. Many allegedly inferior teams played too defensively thinking they couldn’t challenge their opponent during regular time, waiting for the penalty shootouts to (hopefully) qualify. Even the Netherlands, in their semi-final match against Argentina, played very passively while they had been a striking force in the previous games. Penalty shootouts are always a lottery. Take your destiny in your hands and make it happen, don’t wait for the lottery.
  • Be disciplined yet opportunistic. Germany’s DNA is about organization, discipline, yet efficiency and opportunism. Against France, Germany did not have many scoring opportunities, but they seized one opening to score the unique goal of the game. Against Brazil, they seized all opportunities to score 4 goals in 6 minutes to kill the game after 20 minutes only. The mannschaft showed that discipline, strong organization, with the ability to be opportunistic when needed helps you win.
  • You have to rejuvenate a talented and winning team and disrupt the starters to challenge the establishment. For 4-5 years, Spain dominated the world of soccer. The golden generation was unchallenged from the 2008 European Championship, through the 2010 World Cup to the 2012 European Championship. The error in 2014 was to rely (again) too much on their (aging) golden generation and not bring new talents to the team.
  • You must evolve as the game evolves. Brazil has been the poster child of soccer for decades, the winning 1970 team being the ultimate reference what what soccer should (idealistically) be. The problem is that soccer has been Europeanized in the last decade, becoming more tactical, disciplined, organized rather than relying purely on raw individual talent with a few game-changing players. Brazil failed in that category, wanting to play the same way they’ve always had.
  • If you want to beat the best, you must compete with the best every single day. The US team had a fantastic run, their players defying the odds in the “group of death”, playing with their hearts out to qualify ahead of Portugal and Ghana. However, their run was cut short against Germany in the last group game and eventually against Belgium in the round of 16. What the American players lacked? The highest level of competition day after day in the top European leagues. The MLS is very far in terms of level from the top leagues on the other side on the pond. Most US players play for MLS teams, missing the opportunity to challenge the world’s best players in Europe day after day. This is no mistake why the best African, Central/South American players play in Europe. Why the US players wouldn’t?
  • The team always surpasses individual talents. Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, Silva, Hazard?  Individuals talents may make your team win one or two games occasionally, but over a month-long competition, individual talents cannot challenge organized, disciplined, unified teams. Portugal? Columbia? Belgium?… or Germany?
  • If you want to win, you have to be aggressive. Conservatism means death (or in our case – elimination). If you look at the US team’s journey in this World Cup, they had their best results by playing aggressive (Portugal and Ghana). They rumbled when they played more conservative (Germany and Belgium). Why? The US team did not have anything to lose in the first two games, they were the underdogs. Suddenly after two games, the ywere placing for the group’s first place vs. Germany, and a qualification to the quarter-finals vs. Belgium. When there was more at stake, they played conservative. Big mistake!
  • Taking risks is rewarding. Luis Van Gaal made a very bold move when he took out his starter goalkeeper in the last minutes of the extra-time period of the Dutch team’s game vs. Costa Rica to replace him by a substitute goalie. The reason? The substitute goalie was allegedly better at stopping penalty kicks. Very risky, but it paid off. For several reasons, Van Gaal could not do it vs. Argentina in the semi-final game, and The Netherlands lost.
  • Innovative products can be the simplest and come from the most unexpected places. FIFA introduced the vanishing spray paint in this year’s World Cup to solve one of the most annoying bad habits of soccer players that would disturb any game. Before the spray paint, the kicker would move the ball a few yards to get closer to the cage, the opposing players forming the “wall” would move closer to the kicker, both sides cheating the 9-meter distance rule. A simple product as the spray paint fixed the 3-decade lingering issue. Cherry on the cake: it came from the oddest place, the “soccer” countries (USA and Canada), not the pure “football” countries. Blasphemy!
  • “This is the way we’ve always done it” sucks! FIFA finally agreed to use the goal-line technology this year, to avoid many scandals from past tournaments when a referee would mistakenly validate (or not) a goal. With the video now, you can’t go wrong. Strangely enough, UEFA refuses (for now) to implement the technology for the 2016 European Championship, because this goes “against the pure nature” of the game. Major other sports use this technology, even the very-steeped-in-tradition international tennis association!
  • Cultural transformation is critical in order to survive. After several failures in the 90s, Germany went through a complete cultural transformation in the early 2000s (started with Juergen Klinsmann with his assistant Joachim Low, respectively now head coach of US team and German team). Increase collaboration with between the Bundesliga clubs and the national team, development of the training centers for young talents, more movement, more rapid and technical play on the ground, no “star player” but a cohesion of complementary players (from starters to bench)… They reached at least the semi-finals in the last 4 World Cups, and final won yesterday,

What have YOU learned from the World Cup?

image credit: fifa.com/worldcup

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Stephan Vincent is Director of Cultural Transformation at Collidea, a strategic innovation firm in Carmel, IN. He is also Founder and President of s.p.IN and Collide Summit Indiana, a first-of-its- kind un-conference unlike anything else. Stephan is a new contributor to IX, sharing insights from his own blog.

Stephan Vincent

Stephan Vincent is the founder of eX Summit, a space to debate the importance and impact of the employee experience (eX). He is also Marketing Director at Fusion Alliance.




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  1. SAY KENG LEE on July 15, 2014 at 10:04 pm

    A nice way to round up contemporary success strategies while things are still hot, and I think many of them, especially the first 3, are also applicable to the personal setting, not just organisational.

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