Talent, Design and Execution

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A Perspective on Innovation from Football

I like sporting analogies for business, especially football (soccer).  Football is known as the beautiful game, not just because it is often spectacular to watch, but for its glorious unpredictability.  Who have could have foreseen that Leicester City could win the English Premier League at odds of 5,000/1?  Or that Manchester United could win the Champions League from 1-0 down in injury time?   Or that Iceland would beat England (cue embarrassed silence from me and this Icelandic reaction)?

Innovation is also a beautiful phenomenon, for much the same reasons.  Innovation is the foundation of the future, the source of the new.  It’s also unpredictable.  Did Apple really believe that the iPad would become as ubiquitous as it is now?  Did Webvan believe their initiative would be such a spectacular failure?

Football and innovation depend on the same key parameters – TALENT, DESIGN and EXECUTION.  While there may be other important factors, it’s worth dwelling on these.


It isn’t an absolute certainty that the team with the best players will win every game.  But it is clear that the better the players, the more likely the team is to win championships.

Football proves that it’s not just technical skills that are important.  The game is littered with stories of talented ball players who were unable to develop “game sense” and awareness.  Many players lack the determination and drive to give 100% every day, whether that be in training or on a game day.  The team needs players who have the right physical fitness and mental attitude.

The team also needs to be balanced, with skills appropriate for each position, and have players who always want to learn more, so that they are more valuable to the team.

It’s a cliché that “there’s no I in team”.  This applies to football and innovation.  So teams should not rely excessively on one player; the winning team is more important than the individual glory.  That doesn’t mean there is no place for a superstar like Lionel Messi; on the contrary, individual brilliance always has a place, but in the context of the team objective.

So do you employ better people than your competitors?  Do they have the right attitude?  Do they have the “corporate sense” to drive their projects through the organisational maze?  Do they offer more than just technical qualifications? Are they continually learning new skills and being exposed to new stimuli?  Do you have some superstars who can make a big difference to your team?


Football teams aren’t just sent onto the pitch with each individual invited to play where they want.  There is always a formation; an organisation design, for example 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1.  Then there are process elements, for example, designing the team shapes when in and out of possession of the ball; or how to defend set pieces.

Innovation needs design on several levels.  First, the organisation design, the “team shape”; how departments and multi-functional teams are built and interact.  Second, the management systems such as process design, for example a simple Stage Gate system.  Finally, perhaps the element of design that makes the biggest difference; how the individual product or service is designed to ensure customer desirability, technical feasibility and financial viability.

Some team managers demand their teams play to a rigid shape and that players follow detailed instructions for every situation.  Individual initiative and creativity are limited.  The better teams don’t want robots, they allow individuals to use their creativity when they see the chance – both in football and innovation.

So is your organisational design a facilitator or an inhibitor to the processes of innovation?  Do you have the right balance between detailed planning and encouraging individuals to adapt quickly?  Do your people have the freedom to be truly creative?  Do they have clear guidance and direction to execute?  Is there enough support for original and high quality product design?


Then it’s the day of the big game.  The talent is ready, fit both mentally and physically.  They are very clear on how they need to play in order to win the game.  They are psychologically resistant to pressure from the opposition fans, particularly away from home.

The team manager has inspired them, not just for today’s game but in training and development, and in previous games.  The players are as well prepared as they possibly can be.  The backroom team has paid attention to detail so that even small things won’t go wrong.

There will always be setbacks.  Imagine going 1-0 down in the first few minutes of a tough away game.  Or finding out that a competitor has launched a similar product when you’re not ready to move with yours.  The best teams remain determined, adapt where necessary and redouble their efforts in order to succeed.  Those adaptations could be a change of shape; later on perhaps one or more substitutions.

Do your teams execute well, to the best of their ability?  If not, why not?

So in the end, top quality execution completes a well-designed approach taken by top-class talent.

Finally, here’s another football tenet from the English player, Peter Reid.  First, it’s essential to have talent to succeed; it’s a basic requirement.  More important than that, is to have luck.  But the most important of all is to have courage.  It’s the same with innovation.