Tomorrow, the 19th FIFA World Cup kicks off in South Africa. Being the most widely-viewed sporting event in the world, the Football World Cup is likely to dominate football fans’ lives around the globe for the next four weeks — mine included. Yes, instead of taking a good night’s sleep, we’re going to spend our nights cheering our teams in front of the television. But why not use this occasion to draw some parallels between top-level football and the world of innovation? After all, winning the innovation game is like winning the world cup. Here are six reasons why.

Lesson 1: Many teams participate in the game, but only the same few win

In the 18 world cup tournaments held so far, 76 countries participated, but only seven nations won the title: Brazil (5 times), Italy (4), Germany (3), Argentina and Uruguay (2 each), and England and France (1 each). Nowadays, many companies participate in the innovation game, but typically, only a small proportion of firms in every industry and country produce breakthrough innovation results and are considered innovation leaders.
Question: Who is winning the innovation game in your industry? How is your firm doing? And how can you “up” your game?

Lesson 2: Size matters not

China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Russia are all among the world’s top 10 most populated countries, but unlike the x-times smaller countries Slovakia, Denmark and Slovenia, they all didn’t make it to the World Cup. Although China accounts for nearly 20% of the world’s population, it has only once managed to qualify for the world cup finals. As China has not yet managed to capitalize on its huge potential and resource base to field a powerful football squad, many large companies don’t understand how to effectively cultivate and utilize the creative potential of their employees. They are beaten in the innovation game by smaller, more agile and creative competitors. Clearly, Yoda’s words hold true for both world-class football and innovation: “Size matters not.”

Question: How can you boost the agility, action-orientation and creativity of your employees and your firm’s culture to finally get into the innovation game?

Lesson 3: Develop or recruit A-players

In great football nations like Brazil, Italy, Germany, Spain, France or the Netherlands, the clubs and the national football associations have put a formal system in place to identify and recruit talented young players early on, and then to invest years in their physical, tactical and mental training and development. Similarly, many top innovation firms systematically hunt for top talent to join their teams; e.g., Apple follows “the goal of only having ‘A’ players” according to Steve Jobs. Evidently, you need to field top players on the pitch to be world class both in football and innovation.

Question: Who in your team or firm do you consider to be an A-, B- or C-Player? How do you see yourself? And how can you attract more A-Players to your firm disregarding the ongoing “war on talent”?

Lesson 4: Align a player’s position to his talent

In line with their physical strengths and talents, top football players sooner or later specialize their game to become a goalie, a defender, a defensive or offensive mid-fielder, or a striker in the squad. World Cup-winning football coaches have a hand for selecting a team lineup that brings out the best in each player and the team.

In an innovation project, you need to put the right man on the right job, too. A balanced innovation team comprises a mix of good theorists, explorers, ideators, experimenters, collaborators, promoters, and organizers —and of course a good coach that guides the team.

Question: What do you know about the personality type, the strengths and weaknesses, the knowledge, skills and experience repertoire of each player in your team? How can you reposition some players to boost both their individual and the team performance? And who the best man to coach your innovation efforts? Find the answer to these questions with a personality text based on Thinkergy’s innovation people profiling method TIPS.

Lesson 5: Teamgeist beats individualism

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships,” said Michael Jordan. What’s true for NBA basketball is true for football world cup and for innovation champions. Some previous world cup finals ended with major upsets, where the tournament favorites surprisingly lost out to a less talented squad with a better team spirit. For example, when Germany won its first two world cups in 1954 and 1976, many experts considered both Hungary and Netherlands the better teams. In both instances, however, the German “teamgeist” (i.e., focus on the team harmony, alignment and mutual fighting spirit) won over the higher level of individual talent of the Hungarian and Dutch players, whose egocentrism, overconfidence, and arrogance made them loose to the underdogs.

Modern day innovation —or as they say in Pixar— “art is a team sport”, too; you need top individual talents, and you need to “herd the cats” and make them harmoniously work together to get out top results. And as Brazil in the days of Pele demonstrated, no team can be stopped if you a cornucopia of individual brilliance harmoniously aligns with team spirit.

Question: How can you boost “teamgeist” in your team while honing individual talent? How can you reduce ignorance, arrogance and overconfidence levels of your top players and turn them into team players?

Lesson 6: Let luck be on your side

“Luck is believing you’re lucky,” noted Tennessee Williams. To win the World Cup, a squad needs to work hard, play well, and of course, occasionally have a good dose of luck. In 1966, England won its first and sole title when in the final it beat Germany in extra-time thanks to the (in)-famous “Wembley goal” (that probably was none). Before Germany won its third cup in Italy in 1990, this time the “Nationalmannschaft” had the lucky end to overcome the “Three Lions” in a dramatic penalty shoot-out to advance to the final against Argentina.

A little bit of luck is likewise needed for a team to produce true breakthrough innovation. “Name the greatest of all inventors. Accident”, remarked Mark Twain in this context. In innovation, luck often comes in the forms of surprising insights, sudden breakthrough ideas and serendipitous events and discoveries that accompany all the hard, systematic work. However, both on the football pitch and in the innovation lab, the words of US President Thomas Jefferson seem to hold true: “The more I do, the luckier I get.”

Question: Do you believe in yourself and your luck? How much do you do for getting lucky?

Conclusion: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that,” noted Bill Shankly. I agree, if only for the next four weeks. Enjoy!


© Dr. Detlef Reis 2010. 
This article was published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on June 10 2010. All rights reserved.